COLLEGE PARK, Md. – The University of Maryland men’s basketball team plays its lone exhibition of the preseason when it hosts Indiana University (PA) this Friday at 7 p.m. It will also be streamed live on TerpsTV through umterps.com.
With a year in College Park under his belt, a nationally-ranked recruiting class on campus and four key returnees to look to for leadership, head coach Mark Turgeon is excited and confident heading into the 2012-13 season.
Maryland, which went 17-15 last season, welcomes back four scholarship players in guards Pe’Shon Howard and Nick Faust, forward James Padgett and center Alex Len. A recruiting class rated in the top 20 nationally by analysts includes four-star prospects Shaquille Cleare, Jake Layman and Charles Mitchell, and three-star prospect Seth Allen. The addition of Albany transfer Logan Aronhalt gives the Terps yet another new player in the fold, but the group has meshed together quickly.
“I think the major strength of our team right now is our chemistry,” said Turgeon. “The guys are getting along well and liking each other. Another strength has been our effort. It has been great in the weight room, with conditioning, and individual work.
“There aren’t really any egos on the team. We have a great group of guys that listen and are eager to learn. Talent wise, our returning players have all gotten better and we’ve been getting what we’ve expected from all of the incoming players.”
The addition of so many newcomers – Maryland has nine of them – presents a challenge integrating them into the program. Though it seems there is a lack of veteran players, with only Howard and Padgett having played with the team for at least two seasons, Turgeon said the new NCAA rule allowing practices over the summer was incredibly important.
“The summer practices were critical,” he said. “We are so much further along now and I am a little more relaxed now then I have been in the past at this time. We’ve had close to 25 hours to practice and that has been huge for us.”
Those practices have afforded Turgeon the opportunity to evaluate his young but talented group. While the team battled a lack of depth at nearly every position last year, the Terps should have many more options in 2012-13.
“I think we have more talent than last year and we definitely have more depth,” said Turgeon. “Last year we had some really good players, but we just didn’t have enough of them. When Pe’Shon went down, we didn’t have enough players to step up and fill in for him. If he had stayed healthy we may have gotten to 20 wins. But this year our talent level is better, we are deeper, faster and stronger. If we stay healthy, we have depth at every position.”
Faust, Howard and Aronhalt represent Maryland’s most experienced players in the backcourt and will be counted upon to play major minutes and provide leadership. Faust, an All-ACC Freshman Team selection last year, had a strong second half of his rookie season. He averaged 13.4 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game over the final nine contests, including a season-high 19 in the ACC Tournament win over Wake Forest. For the year, Faust averaged 8.9 points per game while splitting time between point and shooting guard.
“Nick has really improved a lot,” said Turgeon. “He has been working hard on his jump shot and has improved that a lot. He is handling the ball much better and his decision-making has also gotten better. He is more unselfish than he was last year and I’m expecting him to be a great defender for us again this year.”
Staying healthy will be the key for Howard, who missed the first nine games last year with a broken bone in his foot and the final nine games after tearing the ACL in his right knee. In his 14 games, Howard averaged 6.5 points and 3.7 assists per game, and is expected to be healthy heading into this season.
“He worked his tail off all summer,” said Turgeon. “From the day he got hurt and started his rehab, he has had a positive attitude. He is going to be healthy when practice starts and I expect him to be so much better than last year. He has lost a lot of weight, he was at 205 pounds last year and he is down to 190 pounds right now. I think he looks better and is moving better than at any point last year.”
The experienced newcomer is Aronhalt, a transfer from Albany who is eligible to play this year because he already earned his undergraduate degree. Aronhalt had a decorated career at Albany, starting 73 games in three years while averaging 11.8 points per game and shooting 35.1 percent from 3-point range.
“Logan is a big-time shooter with a great feel for the game,” said Turgeon. “He is a proven scorer at the Division I level and he is healthy now. He wasn’t very healthy last year, but I think he’s getting healthier and should be a big asset for us.” Allen, a freshman from Woodbridge, Va., has the potential to be a dynamic scorer with his ability to get to the rim and shoot. He averaged over 20 points per game as a senior in leading Fredericksburg Christian School to a 31-2 record.
“He is an explosive scorer, but the game is moving too fast for him right now. He is a better defender than I anticipated; I think he’s going to be a great on-ball defender and a great team defender for us. He’s a big-time athlete and can cover a lot of ground.”
Maryland’s frontcourt lacked depth last season, but a year later is now loaded with it. Padgett and Len are the returnees, while the addition of Cleare, Mitchell and Layman provide bulk and versatility.
Padgett is the elder statesman among the group, having played in 91 career games. The improvement the Brooklyn native made in a year under Turgeon – increasing his scoring average from 3.3 to 8.8 and his rebounding average from 1.9 to 5.8 – was clear. Now, Turgeon says, he’s ready to step into a leadership role.
“James has really worked hard to change his body and has put on about 15 pounds of muscle. He also worked on his leadership skills. James is a really good low post scorer and very good rebounder. He is much more confident even though he played with confidence last year. He has become a much better defender, especially an on-ball defender.”
Len, though, has perhaps made the most significant offseason improvement. He’s put on 30 pounds of muscle and improved his game in the low post, where Turgeon expects him to be much more comfortable and productive this season.
“Alex has worked as hard as anyone I have been ever around to improve from one year to the next. He is much tougher, more confident and his low post game is much better. We hope to let him shoot some threes because he is really shooting the ball well, so we are going to incorporate that into what we are doing with him. He is just a hard worker, and he has a large presence at the rim.”
The newcomers give Maryland a dynamic in the low post it didn’t possess a year ago. Cleare, at 6-foot-9 and 265 pounds, and Mitchell, at 6-foot-8 and 260 pounds, have the size and talent level to be instant contributors.
“Shaq is playing above the rim, and he really looks good, looking more athletic than I ever thought he could be. He is a low post scorer and a good defender. He has a lot of God given ability and he is a great kid. I can only see him getting better every day.
“Charles is a beast, he likes to be coached and he likes to work hard. He can score in a variety of ways, and he is really good on the low block which is really extending his game. He is a great passer and a really good rebounder. You are going to watch this kid really improve as the year goes on.”
Layman, at 6-foot-8, will play mostly small forward but has the ability to play power forward if necessary. The four-star prospect is an excellent shooter and spent the summer honing his game with the USA team that won the gold medal at the FIBA Americas U18 Championship.
“Jake can really shoot the ball,” said Turgeon. “He has got a lot of game and can shoot the 3-pointers. He has got a lot of range so we can use him in a variety of ways. His passing is doing much better than I thought, and I think Jake can be a great defender.”
John Auslander, who appeared in 14 games last year, is a smart player who will provide depth off the bench.
“I am really happy John can be back on scholarship this year, good for him,” said Turgeon. “He has a lot of respect in the locker room, and I am really expecting a lot from him on the floor. He does whatever I ask him to do, and he will be a leader on the second team and the scout team. In the paint he will always be ready to help us just like he did last year.”
Michigan transfer Evan Smotrycz will be a valuable practice player and the Terps are awaiting a decision on whether Xavier transfer Dez Wells will be eligible to play in 2012-13.
“One of the reasons we have been successful getting transfers is because we have a blueprint for them to improve,” said Turgeon. “In Evan’s case it really helped him change his body and become a better athlete. He has got to lead for us because he has been to the NCAA tournament twice and he is going to be a big part of helping our new guys in practice because he is really hard to guard. “It is going to be great having him out there.
“Dez is a tremendous athlete, a tremendous defender and competitor as well. He is a much better passer than I was thinking I was getting. He is also a much better leader and team guy than I thought I was getting. He is really explosive and gets the ball to the rim. He is a one-man fast break, and I knew he was good but he is even better than I was anticipating. He has a chance to be great.”
Maryland has four walk-ons in Spencer Barks, Conner Lipinski, Varun Ram and Jacob Susskind. Barks and Susskind have both been with the team for a year, while Lipinski and Ram will be in their first season. Lipinski, a freshman who had a standout career at Annapolis Area Christian School, was initially a walk-on before being awarded with a scholarship prior to the season.
Maryland’s coaching staff has attacked the recruiting trail with zeal since coming together in May of 2011. Turgeon and assistants Scott Spinelli, Bino Ranson and Dalonte Hill signed a consensus top-20 class this season and have their sights set on another highly ranked class for next season. Having been together for a year, their comfort level has also increased. “This year we are much more comfortable, last year we really didn’t know what we were getting into,” said Turgeon. “The guys didn’t know us and we didn’t know them. At least the guys we have now we have coached for a year or recruited for a year so the comfort level there is much different from last year. We are comfortable at Maryland now and with the league.”
The Terps will start the season off with a bang by playing defending national champion Kentucky at the brand new Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Nov. 9. After the season opener, Maryland will play 12 of its next 14 games at home, with the lone road trip coming on Nov. 27 at Northwestern as part of the ACC/Big 10 Challenge. The Terps also face George Mason on Dec. 2 at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. For the first time, Maryland will be playing an 18-game league schedule, including home-and-homes with Duke, North Carolina, Florida State and Virginia. The Terps play host to Duke on Feb. 16 and North Carolina on March 6. “The 18-game schedule will be a real challenge,” said Turgeon. “We have Duke and Carolina twice again along with Florida State and Virginia, so four of the top six teams picked in the league we have twice, which will be hard.”