Fear the turtle. That's what they say, anyway, but I think it's a bit premature. Appreciate the turtle. Provide it with a nice, clean, lettuce-filled part of your heart and watch it grow, because this cute little turtle is on the verge of battling Godzilla for the honor of destroying Tokyo, which, as true sports fans know, is an old hoops cliche that means challenging Duke, NC State, North Carolina, Florida State, and the other big dogs (or enormous Japan-smashing monsters, to avoid mixing metaphors) for dominance of the ACC men's basketball standings.
By the time you read this, the Terps will have already squared off against reigning NCAA champion the Kentucky Wildcats, and as I'm writing from what you would consider the past, I am not privy to the final score, but I am going to make a prediction. I'm just spitballin' here, but I'm going to say: Kentucky, a lot; Maryland, a good deal less. But since I want to make sure you get your money's worth out of this week's City Paper (what did you pay for this again?), I'm going to throw in a free bonus prediction! Since you're a Maryland fan, I'm guessing your sky is falling. Dear God, how could Maryland get started with a loss? Well, that's what happens when you start your season against the best amateur basketball team on the planet. (Another bonus prediction: If the Terps did beat the Wildcats, you've anointed coach Mark Turgeon the second coming of John Wooden and have booked your hotel room for the Final Four.)
But from there the schedule softens up with eight non-conference home games and a heaping helping of mid-majors. It's a wise move for a young team trying to build some momentum, and it's not like the Terps don't have their fair share of ferociously tough conference games. Maryland has lost its top two scorers from last year's 17-15 team, which finished eighth in the ACC. But coming in after 22 years of Gary Williams, Turgeon had his work cut out for him. Now his philosophy is in, the team has had a full season to adjust, and he's bound to be far more comfortable in his skin (and suit).
Hometown hero Nick Faust looks poised for a breakout year. The sophomore guard, an ESPN four-star recruit who led City College High School to consecutive state titles, made the ACC All-Freshmen Team last year and was coming on strong at the end of the season. He leads all returning players with 8.9 points per game (PPG) last season, but, over his last nine games, he dropped 13.4 PPG along with five boards and a 45 percent field goal percentage. He looks like he's added some serious muscle to his 6-foot-6-inch frame; defenders will have to respect his ability to take it to the hole and that should open up a lot of outside shots that he's more than happy to take. Expect big things from Faust this year and hopefully next.
And expect big things from Ukrainian sophomore center Alex Len. The 7-footer has put on some bulk, which should help him stand up in the paint in the physical ACC. He's the rare big man who can not only play above the rim, but run the floor and nail the occasional three-pointer. And you can't underestimate the benefits of another year playing American basketball. The style takes some getting used to, and the language gains he's been making should play huge dividends on the floor this year and next.
The Terps will also be banking on big things from a pair of top-notch transfers. Two-guard Logan Aronhalt transferred from Albany for his final year of eligibility, and though he's had some injuries, he's an ironman who played in 74 straight games for the Great Danes and averaged 13.8 PPG last season. He'll be big off the bench and, as a coach's son with a high hoops IQ, should provide solid leadership for some of the younger players. But the big news is the 6-foot-5-inch sophomore guard Dez Wells, who was only cleared to play this season by the NCAA last week. Wells started most of last season for a Xavier team that made it to the Sweet 16.
Wells is a major reason for immediate optimism among Terps fans. He averaged 9.8 PPG and 4.9 rebounds as a freshman, and promises to bring a big dose of explosiveness to the Comcast Center and can score from just about anywhere. If Wells and Faust gel, and I believe they will, they will make for an intimidating back court. Dishing it to that pair, look for point guard Pe'Shon Howard, who is healed from last season's devastating ACL injury, to improve over last seasons 3.7 assists per game.
But probably the biggest reason for optimism is the Terps' freshmen. One of the toughest things for Maryland fans during the Williams era was his inability to land local talent. Turgeon has brought in assistant coaches Dalonte Hill and Scott Spinelli, who form-along with Bino Ranson, retained from Williams' time-a three-headed recruiting monster (which sounds far dirtier than it is) that may be finally breaking that trend. Roddy Peters, a point guard out of Suitland High, located just outside of D.C., was a late commitment to the Terps. Ranked the second best high school player coming out of Maryland, the really big news is where he played this summer. Peters played for DC Assault, one of the best club teams in the country and one that had a historically bad relationship with Maryland.
And speaking of point guards, fellow freshman Jake Layman looks like a gem. At 6-foot-8-inches, he towers over most guards, and his pterodactylian wingspan makes him a monster on the full-court press. He could challenge Howard for playing time this year and has a big-time upside. Then there is freshman center Shaquille Cleare: At only 6-foot 9-inches, Cleare is a little short to play center, but he more than makes up for it with his massive 270-pound frame. He's a rebounding machine with a physical presence that brings to mind Charles Barkley or even Wes Unseld. He's not ready to start, but if there were a way to get him onto the court alongside Len, a lot of teams will be scrambling to deal.
So the Terps aren't gonna be bringing home a championship, but with all of these new pieces, they should be a lot of fun to watch, and look ready to make a spot of noise in the ACC, and maybe even the tourney. It's early and a lot has to go right, but here goes another prediction. Your Maryland Terrapins will make the Sweet 16 this Season.