COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Mark Turgeon's first comments at his 2013 Maryland Basketball Media Day on Tuesday were about how this year's team was "different."
But the truth is this team is actually more the same than any he has had at Maryland. The Terrapins, who finished 25-13 last year, after a memorable run to the NIT semifinals, return 12 letter winners and three starters. But Turgeon is right; this team feels different.
"It's a different team, it's a different feel," he said. "My first year was my first year and last year we had a lot of new players. Now we have veterans."
And with having veteran players comes a confidence that was readily apparent Tuesday at the Comcast Center as the Terrapins took pictures and talked to the media about the upcoming season.
"I'm hyped for this season," said sophomore center Shaquille Cleare. "I have a lot of confidence. It's the way we've been practicing. We're running harder and playing harder than last year. We felt like we should have been in the (NCAA) Tournament last year and we're hungry and pushing one another."
Whether Maryland actually belonged in the 2012 NCAA field is a point of conjecture. Turgeon, always brutally honest, simply said the team didn't win enough games (20 at the end of the regular season). And while nobody likes saying it, truth is those NIT games probably helped the young team mature just a bit more.
What's important is that the Terrapins believed they belong and are out to fix that this season.
"It's the next step for us," said the Terrapin's elder statesman, junior Nick Faust. "We think we're ready for it, having guys like Dez Wells and Evan Smotrycz that have already experienced an NCAA Tournament. They have a lot of knowledge and they know what's it like. They push us every day."
The problem is Wells got his NCAA Tournament experience at Xavier and Smotrycz at Michigan. They're transfers, now juniors along with Faust, who is the only scholarship player left from Turgeon's first recruiting class. Senior John Auslander, now on scholarship, joined the team as a walk-on.
Smotrycz, who sat out last year, is chomping at the bit to take the court this year but he practiced all of last year and seven Terrapins who averaged 12 or more minutes a game return, too.
"This year we're a whole different team because we have guys that have been through it," said Faust. "My freshman and sophomore year we had younger guys. This year we're ready from the jump."
Well, on the wings, Maryland certainly seems ready. Wells is the leading returning scorer at 13.1 points per game, and if he has - as promised by he and Turgeon - cut down his turnovers, he has a great chance to be Maryland's last All-ACC performer.
Faust is back after averaging 9.4 points per game and Turgeon hand-picked him to handle the departed Pe'Shon Howard's underrated role as top defender on the other team's best scorer.
The 6-9 Smotrycz seems likely to step in as the "stretch four" forward that Turgeon hasn't had at Maryland.
"He is a major weapon," said the coach. "He can really shoot it. He's got a mid-range game and then he's got post-up. He can also really pass it and he can figure out how to get guys open in our offense by screening and helping them. He's a huge asset that way, and then at the other end, he can guard a big guy like he had to do at Michigan, and he can also get out and guard the little guy. He's a pretty valuable piece."
Sophomore bookends Cleare and 6-8 Charles Mitchell will handle the heavy lifting at center where most are expecting a drop-off with Alex Len off to the NBA. Truth is, Maryland will actually just be - here's that word again - different in the low post.
Turgeon said the Terrapins will miss the 7-1 Len more on defense where his wing-span and agility helped erase a lot of mistakes and kept the Terrapins among the top field goal defense teams in the country last year. The 6-9 Cleare and Mitchell are bigger and bulkier around the basket, though both seem trimmer and fitter than last year. Truth be told, they both look ready to have their way inside.
Offensively, Turgeon tweaked his offense late last year heading to the postseason. While still inside-out oriented, he opened the floor, put the ball more in Wells' hands and turned his slashers loose to attack the basket. That strategy will continue this year while Cleare develops his back-to-the-basket game and Mitchell continues to devour the offensive glass.
"Last year I just rebounded," smiled Mitchell. "This year I have to focus more on my offensive game, scoring on the low block."
Off the bench, 6-9 freshman Damonte Dodd from Centreville, Md., by way of Massanutten (Va.) Military Academy, can run the floor like few big men and will plug in to rebound, defend and dunk in transition until he learns more nuances of the game. Turgeon loves his upside, though, and it seems just a matter of time before he gets minutes.
Other than down low, the other question mark for Turgeon's Terps is out high at point guard.
Sophomore Seth Allen took on much of that role last year as a freshman and now the job is his by default with Howard transferred to Southern California, and Faust groomed for a bigger role as a lock-down guy on defense and a slasher from the wing on offense. Allen, who averaged 7.8 points and 2.3 assists per game, likes what he has seen so far on the team's 3-game tour of the Bahamas in August, and in practices.
"The ball is going to be in my hands 90 percent of the time," he said. "So I have to make the right play. We've got a lot of freedom on offense with the spacing for us to make the easy play. When we get out of control that's when (Turgeon) starts taking that freedom."
Behind Allen, the prize of this recruiting class, 6-3 Roddy Peters has been turning heads all preseason. Turgeon has said over and over the District Heights product is better than he expected and teammates are raving about the way Peters pushes the ball up the court.
"Roddy is a heck of a player," said Cleare. "He can really score the ball and his arms are so long, I think he's going to be a great defender. On the break, he's really fun to watch."
Everyone is counting on Peters moving up in the rotation this year. Turgeon even said he's got "7 ½ starters," at this point and the Terrapins are close to having "eight." Peters seems like that last guy if you run through the returnees and examine the combinations. Plus, it's obvious Turgeon loves what he has seen so far from his "pleasant surprise."
Peters has completely rebuilt his jump shot since last year, under the watchful eye of graduate assistant Eric Hayes.
"I was kind of slinging the ball at first but now it's smoother," said Peters, who had a surprising answer about his biggest adjustment. "Talking, telling everyone what to do. In high school I didn't do that. Now (Turgeon) wants me to talk the whole time I'm out there."
Speaking of talking, apparently one of Peters' heroes, Juan Dixon, had something to say about Peters wearing No. 3 for the Terrapins. Suffice to say that Peters, who looks considerably taller than his listed 6-3, will wear No. 2.
Dixon's name and the topic of talking also came up when Wells was addressing the media about his expanded leadership role. Turgeon and several of the other players credited Wells with being a driving force in the success of Maryland's early-morning practices, which began earlier this year on Sept. 27. Wells is a vocal leader and leads by his hard-charging example, particularly in practice. He said he picked up a tip or two from Dixon in after-hours games in Comcast Center.
"We played pick up with Juan and some of the other (alumni) and the way those guys talk on the court is just amazing," said Wells. "You try to take bits and pieces from everyone's game and that's how I feel I can get better. I want to be more vocal on defense to let guys know, 'I got your help left,' or 'You got a pick right.'"
When asked what this Maryland team does best, Wells didn't hesitate: "Defense will be our strength because Coach (Turgeon) wouldn't have it any other way."
Turgeon has lauded the improved defense of all the returnees but particularly Wells and the sophomores from a year ago. "None of the freshman could defend," Turgeon, again brutally honest, said of last year's class.
That improvement on defense will mean more minutes for 6-8 swingman Jake Layman, too. Layman averaged 8.4 points in his 17 starts this season and many of his teammates are confident he's going to bust out big this year.
"He has no idea how good he is," said Wells. "The way he shoots the ball, how athletic he is. He just runs and doesn't know when he's tired. He has no idea how great he's going to be. He's capable of hitting 10 threes in one game. He's capable of blocking dunks or dunking, guarding anywhere from somebody 6-2 to 6-10. That doesn't come around too often, not in a guard."
The versatility of Layman and Smotryzc threatens to change the Terrapins - make them different - in several ways. Turgeon has options to play big or small and can adjust many different ways with those two players. The Terrapins will be a nightmare to prepare for in their final go-round in the ACC before joining the Big Ten next year.
And this "different" team will debut publicly this Friday, hosting Maryland Madness in historic Cole Field House, beginning at 6:30. The return to Cole is premeditated by Turgeon, who said he has wanted to play a game there since he took over the job three years ago. He wants to schedule a non-conference game over the Christmas break there every year and make it a big deal for alumni and families in the area that grew up watching games in the old field house.
Turgeon also said he liked the new NCAA rules on practice, allowing team to practice 42 days before the first scheduled game. It should make the basketball better in the early season, and it's been particularly good for the Terps, who have had more chances to learn and watch film rather than push themselves so hard in conditioning and cramming in the sets.
Turgeon said with all the veterans back the installation of the offense and defense has been easier, and the lighter basketball workload is great for the student-athletes, too.
The season tips off with an exhibition against Catholic back in Comcast Center on Nov. 3, at 1 p.m., and the regular season gets underway with a marquee matchup with Connecticut Nov. 8 at the Barclays Center in N.Y. The first home game is Nov. 13 against Abilene Christian.
Turgeon said the ACC may be the best league in basketball this year with the addition of more teams from the artists formerly known as the Big East, Syracuse and Notre Dame, in particular.
Someone pointed out that there's much more to consider at the top of the ACC than just Duke and North Carolina, with those additions.
"And they have to think about us, too," he quickly added.
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