Last season, the expectations for the Terrapins men’s basketball team skyrocketed early.
After almost upsetting then-No. 3 Kentucky in the season opener on national television, the Terps continued to reel off 13 straight victories. They were young, they were dynamic and, at times, they looked unstoppable.
But once ACC play started, the Terps came crashing back to earth, missing the NCAA tournament for the third consecutive season. The talent was there, but the Terps were not yet seasoned enough to take that next step.
When the Terps take the court at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., tomorrow night against No. 18 Connecticut, they’ll be a year older, and their dynamic pieces will have had another year to integrate. An NCAA tournament berth isn’t out of the question.
But the expectations should still remain low.
Coach Mark Turgeon said the team is “maybe a little further ahead” than he thought it would be at this point. Forward-turned-point guard Dez Wells has earned rave reviews for his leadership, and three newcomers — forwards Evan Smotrycz and Damonte Dodd, and guard Roddy Peters — have the opportunity to contribute immediately.
But there are still plenty of question marks surrounding the Terps, and that should be enough to temper any runaway excitement about the team’s prospects.
While some labeled him as a bust who never quite lived up to his potential, center Alex Len’s departure to the NBA leaves a gap in the Terps’ interior. Sure, the Terps will have a little bit more freedom on offense, but the defense could suffer, and Turgeon knows as much.
“We’re going to miss Alex,” the third-year coach said at media day a month ago. “If you followed us closely down the stretch last year, Alex was pretty special, especially on defense. We don’t have that this year, so we’re going to have to be different defensively, No. 1. I think last year we were No. 5 in defensive field goal percentage in the nation and that’s because of Alex. He covered up our mistakes.”
The Terps do have a trio of options in the paint in center Shaquille Cleare, forward Charles Mitchell and Dodd. But Cleare and Mitchell were both inconsistent during their freshman seasons. Mitchell showed well in the Terps’ exhibition against Catholic and recorded a double-double, but that came against Division III competition. Cleare started and played 20 minutes, scoring four points while picking up three fouls.
One of those players will need to step up his game. If the Terps want to advance deep into March, they’re bound to run into a team with an offense that runs through the post. And when that situation presents itself, Cleare or Mitchell will need to come through.
“I feel between me and Shaq, we can make up most of it,” Mitchell said last month. “Actually all of it and be a little more productive. I feel like [if we’re] both in the game at the same time, that’s a one-two punch most people can’t stop.”
Plus, point guard — a position that seemed to be a constant point of uncertainty last season — was thrust back into relative disarray after guard Seth Allen’s injury last week. Wells can easily succeed, and there’s no reason to doubt his ability, but the trickle down could end up hurting the Terps significantly in the long run.
Allen’s injury shortens the Terps’ rotation, thins the backcourt and shifts Wells out of the frontcourt. The depth from last season that occasionally seemed like a curse when Turgeon couldn’t find the right combination of 10 players for results suddenly seems like a long-gone luxury.
Still, there’s plenty to be optimistic about as the Terps trek to Brooklyn to open their season. Turgeon is poised to bring the program back to national prominence, there’s a well-regarded recruiting class on the horizon and an NCAA tournament bid is definitely within reason with such talent on the roster.
“That is the next progression,” Turgeon said. “That’s what we plan to do. We’re going to have to stay healthy. We’re going to have to play really well. We’re going to have to get lucky. The basketball gods are going to have to be on our side — we’re going to have to get a few bounces. But I just think with recruiting and everything we’re doing here, it’s just the next natural step. And it feels right.”
But as we’ve already seen with Allen’s injury, things can change in an instant. Without a senior in their rotation, the Terps are still young and haven’t played yet, so there’s no way to know if last season’s inconsistencies are behind them.
There’s reason for confidence. But at first, that confidence should stay close to the ground.