Maryland center Shaquille Cleare checked into an exhibition game this month. Within three minutes, the burly freshman's first shot, and a dunk attempt at that, bounced astray.
He never got going that night, then played a limited role in last week's season opener against Kentucky.
Finally, there was a glimmer of the Cleare the Terrapins knew, an eight-point, five-rebound effort Monday against Morehead State.
"I've recruited Shaq for three years, but you're still getting used to how to coach him," coach Mark Turgeon said. "He's very positive, upbeat, works hard every day guy, and that was the first time I saw him hang his head a little bit and not smile. I'm sure we'll have it again at some point being a young player, but hopefully he learned from it and continues to grow and get better and mature."
An optimistic Cleare is what Maryland (1-1) hopes to have Friday at Comcast Center when it plays host to Long Island (0-2). As nonconference play unfolds, the Terps will try to develop several newcomers in their 10-man rotation.
None is literally as big as the 6-foot-9, 265-pounder. Few figuratively loom as large for the direction of Maryland's season.
The Terps enjoy far greater (and larger) options in the frontcourt than they did a year ago. Senior James Padgett is a steady presence. Sophomore Alex Len is much improved. And Cleare and Charles Mitchell provide Maryland with a pair of promising freshman bigs who figure to advance considerably over the course of the season.
A shaky first impression does little to change that.
"That's the first time I missed one in a long time," Cleare said of the errant dunk. "I'm going to be hard on myself because I want to be great. I care about a lot of things. It's not going to stop me from going to practice the next day and working hard. I will never carry it over into another game or carry it over into another practice. I'm going to be hard on myself, because that's what all the great players do."
While Cleare made it to the foul line and provided some offense Monday, his greatest value at the moment clearly lies at the defensive end. His overall ability is progressing, as is his awareness of the Terps' defensive principles.
Turgeon is optimistic he can soon find ways to play Len and Cleare together, though it will require Len to gradually learn the power forward spot rather than the center position he currently shares with the freshman. Put them together, and Maryland could field a formidable back line on defense, one prepared to swat shots with exceptional proficiency.
It was a skill Cleare capably demonstrated against Morehead State, earning the second of three blocks emphatically to bring on the final media timeout.
"You can't let anyone come in there and embarrass us and score on us like that," Cleare said. "You have to put the ball in the stands where it's supposed to be."
It also has Cleare's mind back in the right place.
After the missed dunk, Mitchell urged Cleare not to allow an exhibition game to get him down. After a seven-minute stint against Kentucky, Mitchell reminded his friend it was only one game in a long season.
He took a proactive approach Monday, asking Cleare before the opening tip if he was ready to play. Cleare assured him he was. It was better, though, to show Mitchell and the rest of his teammates over the next couple of hours.
"I'm just excited to see him out there in the middle of the game flow and being back to his regular self," Mitchell said. "I'm really excited to see what he can do the next game."
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