How did everybody spend their Saturday this weekend? Watch some college football? Hang out with your family? Day drink? Well I spent mine watching Maryland men’s basketball destroy Bowie State in an exhibition game that counts for absolutely nothing. Why did I spend a Saturday this way?
Well, although I’m a fan of a number of disappointing teams, I have a particularly strong tie to the Terps. All of the other teams I follow (Mets, Jets, Knicks), I’m lucky if I get to five or sox home games a year. Obviously I still watch them on TV, but as anyone can tell you, watching on TV is no replacement for actually being at the games.
From 2006 – 2010, I can’t remember a big Maryland basketball game that I missed. There weren’t any national championship banners, but there were some great moments. Sweeping Duke in ’06, Cliff Tucker’s buzzer beater, Greivis’ triple double. Maryland’s 2010 win over Duke to clinch a share of the ACC regular season title is hands down the most electric sporting event I’ve ever been to, and I’m still convinced nothing will ever top it.
So despite the shortcomings of the past few years, and the mounting pressure on Mark Turgeon to produce an NCAA tournament bid, I’m still excited for the start of college basketball season. For those of you that haven’t even given a thought to college basketball because of the Orioles and Ravens, I’m here to give you an idea of what you’ll be looking at when the Terps tip against the mighty Wagner Seahawks.
If you haven’t been following the team in the offseason, and are just tuning in for the first time on Friday night, you’re going to notice a lot of changes. Nick Faust, Shaquille Cleare, and Charles Mitchell are all gone. The good thing is, we don’t need to spend too much time discussing them, because none of them were really essential to Maryland’s success.
Cleare was a huge disappointment in his time in College Park, and will be missed the least of the three. Mitchell brought some skills to the table (most notably rebounding, with an underrated touch around the basket) but was an apathetic defender which really hurt against the more talented ACC frontcourts. Faust was an enigma, capable of explosive plays and Maryland’s premiere perimeter defender, but he never adopted an effective offensive identity. He would’ve been a nice bench piece this season, but stashed behind more talented players.
The one potentially damning loss was point guard Seth Allen, whose continual improvement and maturation was cause for belief in an otherwise dismal Terps season last year. His transfer to Virginia Tech hurt not only because of his undeniable talent, but also because it creates a currently unanswered question of who will run the point in College Park this season.
Who We Know
Even with the mass exodus of Faust, Cleare, Mitchell, and Allen, there’s still a few familiar faces left, the most important of which is Dez Wells. There are holes in Wells’ game (3 point shooting, an occasional proclivity towards turnovers), but he’s clearly the best player on the team. A slashing 2-guard with the size and strength to cover most college 3’s, Wells is a runaway train in the open court. He’s a capable if not outstanding ball handler, and his effectiveness could be noticeably strengthened this year if the rumors of a hot shooting freshman class prove true.
Jake Layman has really become the new Sean Mosley, an obviously talented player who runs hot and cold runs are as unpredictable as a dorm shower. The form on his jump shot is picture perfect, and when it’s falling he’s an outstanding spot up threat. But what everyone wants to see is some aggression out of the 6’8” forward, because not only is his size an asset, but his sweet stroke from the arc would be just as effective at the free throw line. If he can even out his Jekyll and Hyde act and be the second banana to Wells, it would go a long way towards some offensive consistency.
Two more returners are big men Jonathan Graham and Damonte Dodd. Graham is an undersized senior power forward at 6’8” whose average skills are improved by an above average motor. He’s an energy replacement at best, and a bench guy at worst. Dodd is an inch taller, and a solid interior defender in the mold of a young Ekene Ibekwe. With the frontcourt looking thin due to the transfers, his offensive improvement (or lack thereof) could swing Maryland’s season one way or another.
The last person to mention is Evan Smotrycz, who will miss the first few games due to a broken foot. Smotrycz has a similar game to Dave Neal, with some more athleticism in the package. He’s the best proven shooter on the team, and will help to spread the floor and open up driving lanes for Wells upon his return.
Who We Don’t
And this is where it gets interesting. The freshman class is the most highly touted I can remember, and with all of the transfers, they’ll play big roles on this Maryland team. Most preseason predictions are placing the Terps squarely on the bubble of the tournament, but if the freshmen play to anywhere near their potential, this team’s stock improves dramatically.
Remember Alex Len? Of course you do. He was the big 7-foot European guy who would show up under the bright lights against Duke and Kentucky and then go back into hiding for the rest of the season. Well Serbian 7-footer Michal Cekovsky will remind you a lot of Len. I watched Cekovsky play 22 minutes against a terrible Bowie State team, so I’ll go ahead and jump to a few ridiculous conclusions.
The thing that jumps out about him is his ball handling, which is really impressive for a 7-footer, and could really open up a lot of possibilities if he plays his way into getting meaningful minutes. However, Cekovsky is still very raw, and although his ceiling is the highest of anyone in the front court, he looked like a deer in the headlights way too often in what was really a meaningless game. He’s unlikely to be a major contributor until halfway through the season at the earliest.
Dion Wiley and Jared Nickens are two shooters that ranked 45th and 83rd respectively in Scout.com’s 2014 prospect rankings. Wiley is a 2 guard, while Nickens will see most of his time at the three. Guessing how these guys will handle the pressures of a full Big 10 schedule is a fools errand, but there’s no doubting the ability. Neither are athletic marvels, but they’re quick enough to get their own shot. What matters is whether they’re accurate enough to make it count.
The most important freshman, and quite possibly the most important player, is Romelo Trimble who has been given the keys to the offense to start the year. The highest ranked recruit of the 2014 class, Trimble also has a reputation as a lights out shooter and has a lightning quick release. All of that’s wonderful, but obviously there will be a lot more on Trimble’s plate. At the end of last season, Allen looked to be the closest thing Maryland has had to a point guard since Vasquez.
If Trimble can’t handle the duties, either Dez Wells or 5th year transfer Richaud Pack would become the primary ballhandler. Wells as a point guard has proven to be a square peg in a round hole in the last few years, and Pack averaged 1.6 assists per game at North Carolina A&T last year. So there’s really not a second option to be had. Trimble will need to hit the ground running in Turgeon’s motion offense.
So there it is. I know everyone’s a little bummed that the Blue Devils and Tar Heels won’t be visiting the Comcast Center (it’s still Comcast to me dammit) this season. But on the other hand, this is one of the most athletic and exciting rosters Maryland has had since I’ve been a fan. There may not be rivalries yet, but you can rest assured with a conference that’s loaded with storied programs from top to bottom, they’ll form soon enough. So order up some Big Ten Plus and pull your jerseys out of the bottom drawer. The march to March begins Friday.