By Jon Rothstein
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The first ever college basketball game at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn was supposed to be a coronation for the defending national champions.
Kentucky had once again assembled a top-flight recruiting class under John Calipari, and it was assumed by many that the brand new arena would serve as the red carpet to which the Wildcats would begin another magical season.
The problem was, no one told Maryland.
And while the Terrapins lost on that night by three points to Kentucky, they made a national statement that their own program was back on an upward trajectory.
“We’re going to win and we’re going to win this year,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said following the 72-69 loss to the Wildcats on Nov. 9.
The winning hasn’t stopped since.
The Terrapins will enter Wednesday night’s home game against Florida State on a 13-game winning steak with an overall record of 13-1. While none of the victories have come against teams that are guaranteed to be in the NCAA Tournament, there’s a growing harmony within this group that’s impossible not to notice.
“Our chemistry is tremendous,” Turgeon said recently. “We have a group that wants to be good and have great kids that really like each other. That helps immensely when you’re going through a season.”
Maryland’s collective balance may be their greatest attribute. Ten separate players are playing better than 12 minutes a game, something that could become invaluable as you get into late February and March.
While other teams in the ACC have one or two players that they need to play well in order to win, the Terrapins have several different people that could lead them in scoring on a given night.
The point guard play, spearheaded by junior floor general Pe’Shon Howard has been much improved and 7-1 sophomore Alex Len has made a major jump in his second year in College Park.
“Pe’Shon has really gotten better,” Turgeon said of Howard, who leads Maryland at 5.8 assists per game. “He was a walking turnover last year and a had a lot of flash in his game, but we’ve been on him about making easy plays and he’s bought into it. He’s playing much better than I ever thought he could play. Alex has come so far so fast. He’s got a little nastiness to him. He’s way past where I thought he’d be as well.”
Len, who leads the team in scoring and rebounding (13.5 PPG, 8.1 RPG) allows Maryland to have a focal point offensively that other players can play off of. His presence has drastically increased the number of quality offensive opportunities for players like Nick Faust, Seth Allen, and Jake Layman, a freshman who had 20 points in the ACC opener against Virginia Tech last Saturday.
Turgeon said he will use Allen and Howard together regularly in the back court in an effort to put two ball handlers on the floor. Albany transfer Logan Aronhalt, a long range specialist who’s shooting 56.5% from three-point range also figures to regularly see time as this team progresses in the ACC.
Maryland looked like a borderline NCAA Tournament team before the season, but the late addition of Xavier transfer Dez Wells, whom Turgeon called “the missing piece” to this team’s lineup has drastically altered the Terrapins’ ceiling.
“He brings experience and toughness,” Turgeon said of Wells, who’s averaging 12.3 PPG, 4.6 RPG, and 2.9 APG. “He’s been through all of this before because of the team he played on last year at Xavier. He’s been great for our young guys, especially Nick (Faust).”
With Wells, Len, veteran big man James Padgett, and freshmen Shaquille Cleare and Charles Mitchell, Maryland is well equipped to hold their own on the boards. The broad shouldered Mitchell (6-8, 260), who looks more like an offensive lineman than a power forward has been a pleasant surprise early, already tallying double-digit rebound totals in four separate games.
We’re not ready to anoint the Terrapins as a legitimate ACC contender until they prove their worth against higher level competition, but there’s a lot of positives surrounding the upside and potential of this team.
If Duke and NC State are the teams to beat in the conference, we think it’s safe to say that Maryland is in the next tier. That means Turgeon has a team that should win 20-plus games and have a chance to get back to where they desire to be on an annual basis — the NCAA Tournament.
“I’ve got a group that wants to be good,” Turgeon said. “Since we’ve come back from Christmas the intensity level of our practices have been at another level. We’ve got a chance.”
How far will Maryland go this year? Be heard in the comments!