- The Washington Times - Monday, January 9, 2012

RALEIGH, N.C. — Maryland’s conference opener Sunday night reinforced the two realities coach Mark Turgeon must balance in his first season in College Park.

The Terrapins are vastly better than the ragtag bunch that opened the year, yet not quite at the level probably needed for a finish in the top half of the conference.

“We have two more months to try to figure it out,” Turgeon said after a 79-74 loss at RBC Center.

Sunday was a curious barometer for the Terps (10-4, 0-1 ACC), who remain a group still finding its way as the season approaches its midpoint.

Maryland’s frontcourt physically was overmatched at times, yet freshman center Alex Len still recorded a double-double (12 points, 11 rebounds) in the loss.

Guard Terrell Stoglin encountered foul trouble and at times took the default approach of trying to do everything on offense, still winding up with 25 points.

Fellow sophomore Pe’Shon Howard continued growing comfortable in his fifth game back from a broken foot, delivering eight assists despite a shaky shooting day.

Just about everywhere, there were welcome developments with caveats, evidence things are better but not quite good enough.

Considering where Maryland was not too long ago, it is enough to create hope for the rest of the season.

“I think from where we started in August to where we are now, I think we improved a lot — rebounding the basketball, defending the basketball,” guard Sean Mosley said. “This team was scoring 80-some points a game and we hold them to 70-some points, which is still a huge amount of points, but at the end of the day we’re starting to communicate and defend the ball a lot better.”

Defense, of course, is Turgeon’s perpetual talking point. And while Maryland’s inability to defend in transition or deny second-chance points was its undoing against N.C. State (12-4, 1-0), it might be better equipped to make a leap rather than incremental gains on defense during league play.

The biggest variable is Len, who held up well despite a few defensive shortcomings in his first serious test since becoming eligible late last month. The more he is integrated into the offense — a function of both the Ukrainian’s ease and teammates’ willingness to have things work through him — the more likely it is to see significant growth occur.

“I think they’re going to get better and better,” N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said. “I think when we get to the end of February, we’re going to see Maryland as a really good basketball team with what Mark is doing.”

That would meet the de facto deadline of the end of the season if Maryland is to maximize its talent this season. It probably isn’t soon enough for Turgeon, who was his usual candid self Sunday.

But unlike the Terps’ pre-Thanksgiving trip to Puerto Rico, after which Turgeon bluntly assailed his team’s many shortcomings, there was evident improvement even without the desired result as Maryland opened its ACC schedule.

“This game’s going to help us so much more,” Turgeon said. “I think you guys can see. You guys were in Puerto Rico. Are you kidding me? How far we’ve come since Puerto Rico is frightening.”

NOTES: Len was named the ACC’s rookie of the week. Len averaged 13.5 points and 10 rebounds in the Terps’ two games. It’s the third straight season a Maryland freshman earned the honor, joining Jordan Williams in 2010 and Terrell Stoglin last year.

• Maryland will host former football player Shawne Merriman’s annual coat drive during Wednesday night’s game. The school said coats, hats, scarves and mittens can be donated at Gates A and E at Comcast Center for distribution to those in need throughout the area.

• Patrick Stevens can be reached at pstevens@washingtontimes.com.

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