October is the time for optimism in college basketball, and the feeling was on display yesterday in College Park.
For the Maryland Terrapins, there are reasons to look forward to this season. After more than two decades with Gary Williams coaching the team, last year the Terps adjusted to new head coach Mark Turgeon.
Turgeon did an admirable job in his first year, winning 17 games, but he did so without the benefit of his first recruiting class or even a full offseason to implement his schemes and systems. This year, that has all changed.
"I'm much more comfortable," Turgeon said.
Turgeon brought in the highest-rated recruiting class at Maryland in almost a decade. The Terps roster has been completely overhauled in the last year, with former players leaving the team and new transfers heading to College Park. Turgeon is building the squad he wants, and the buzz around the team shows that the players are buying in.
Last season, the Terps relied on the streaky scoring of sophomore guard Terrell Stoglin, who could pose problems for opposing teams or his own depending on his jumper. After an offseason rules violation, Stoglin is no longer with the team.
Instead, the 2012-2013 Terps can expect more scoring balance, and in-turn a more fluid offense. Nick Faust said this year's team already has a much different feel, and he said it will be visible within the offense.
"Everyone puts their hands on the ball before the shot goes up," Faust said.
At times last season, the Maryland offense seemed rushed, and often Stoglin would shoot the ball without involving his teammates.
While Faust should pick up some of Stoglin's scoring output, perhaps the biggest difference for Maryland will be its front court.
Senior James Padgett, sophomore Alex Len, and freshmen Shaquille Cleare and Charles Mitchell present roughly 1,000 lbs. of muscle and height for the Terps. The four big men will be expected to rebound, score and play defense for the Terps, giving Maryland a big presence in the middle.
Len and Cleare come into the year with the most hype.
"He's a whole different guy now," Turgeon said of Len.
Last year, Len missed much of practice and early parts of the season dealing with NCAA eligibility issues after transferring to the U.S. from his native Ukraine. When Len finally arrived on the court for Maryland, the physicality of the American game surprised him, and over the course of the season his thin 7'1" frame wore down.
Over the summer, Len has been eating as much as he can. He joked that Turgeon wants him to eat five or six meals a day, consuming as much as 5,000 calories. Last year, Len played around 220 lbs., but this year he said his weight is up to almost 250 lbs.
"Coach wants me to eat a lot," Len said.
His English is much improved, and many expect a similar improvement in his game. Len is a tall body with good shot-blocking skills, and he has the outside shooting talent and passing ability often cultivated in European bigs. In a recent CBS Sports list, Len ranked as the 48th best college basketball player in the country.
His counterpart this year could well be freshman Shaq Cleare. Cleare is large, with broad shoulders and a big smile. The practice battles between Len and Cleare will help both players improve, and Len is already happy that Cleare has arrived on campus.
"When Shaq came in it was like a present for me," Len said.
He explained that last year he struggled against the big, physical players that man the middle on most Atlantic Coast Conference teams. Now, Len gets to face those players in practice.
"We battle every day," Cleare said, adding that the matchups can get "very physical." The action involves a few elbows here and there, and Cleare joked that at times it gets so rough the players end up pulling on each other's socks.
"Alex has gotten a lot stronger. He should dominate this year," Cleare said of Len. "The sky is the limit."
NBA dreams could be possible for both Len and Cleare.
Len has the height, but Cleare has the size. The highly recruited 6'9" freshman from the Bahamas - by way of Houston - is coming into the season weighing around 250. Cleare compares his game to former Ohio State forward Jared Sullinger, now with the Boston Celtics. Terp fans would be very pleased if Cleare replicated Sullinger's success.
An improved front court could set the Terps up for success, but without dependable guard play the team will not get far. After an injury plagued 2011-2012, junior point guard Pe'Shon Howard is excited to get on the court with this team.
"I'm so excited to play," Howard said. "We're going to be able to get better every day."
Howard is still rehabbing from a knee injury, and his status for the Maryland season opener in Brooklyn on Nov. 9 against Kentucky is in question. But once he is ready to go, this will be Howard's team. He will run the point, and be expected to facilitate an offense with explosive playmakers like Faust and many hungry big men.
Freshmen Jake Layman presents a bit of a wild card for the Terps.
Layman played this past summer with the U.S. Men's Under 18 basketball team. Layman was a surprise by some to make the team, but he thrived in team play. Though he stands 6'8", at just 190 lbs. Layman is more of a slasher than a banger, and he has a soft shooting touch.
"Once we get comfortable, we can accomplish anything," Layman said. "It's going to be awesome."
Maryland has not made the NCAA tournament in two years, and for that to change, the freshmen will need to make a big impact. Turgeon made it clear that though the national predictions do not expect much of Maryland, that is not the feeling within the program.
"The national spotlight stuff will come," Turgeon said. "With the talent that we have, we're going to have a chance to get to the postseason. We're going to get better."