- - Thursday, November 7, 2013

It has been 31 weeks, two days, and a handful of hours since Maryland’s season ended last year at the hands of Iowa in the semifinals of the NIT. It has been 29 weeks, two days, and a few hours since star center Alex Len officially announced his decision to enter the NBA draft.

For all of that time, supporters and observers have been asking: Can Maryland make the NCAA tournament this year? Will sophomore Shaquille Cleare be able to replace Len? Will the Terps be able to end their final year in the ACC on a high note?

Suddenly, there are no weeks, no days, and only a handful of hours until the Terps open the 2013-14 season against Connecticut in Brooklyn. And ‘Shaq,’ the big man at center, could not be more excited to put the past behind him and end those questions once and for all.

“This year people have been pressuring me about filling in for Alex, but I’m really not that pressured,” Cleare said. “I’m just going to come in this year and do what I got to do: rebound, run the floor, jump shots, screens — do anything to get the win at the end of the game.”

That doesn’t stop the critics from wondering. Last year, Len averaged 11.9 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. Although with far fewer minutes, Cleare only accumulated an average of 3.7 points and 2.7 rebounds.

Hoping to prove the naysayers wrong, Cleare lost 30 pounds in the offseason prior to returning to campus. But a strained hamstring that turned into back pain left the Bahamas-born player out of commission for a month.

After rehabbing and training at his home in Andros, where his family will be watching Friday’s game, Cleare feels trim, slim, and ready to go. And he says not to let Sunday’s exhibition game against Catholic University, where the Terps had four turnovers before the first media timeout, skew that picture.

“I’m in better shape now since the last game; I’ve actually lost five pounds since last game,” he said.

When asked how he lost five pounds in four days, Cleare said it was, “Eating right, extra cardios after all the workouts, hit the stairs, hit the bikes — nutrition is important. I know my team is going to need me this year so I’m going to have to be in tip-top shape.”

While Cleare could be a spokesperson for a healthy living campaign, the recent weight loss along with his comments on “execution and poise,” also show a newfound maturity.

“We’re so much more mature,” coach Mark Turgeon said. “The guys that are playing, the guys that we’re counting on, have been through a lot.”

Cleare’s comments reflected that growth.

“I’m ready to go now, though,” he said. “I’ve got to put the team on my back. I’m going to have to hold it down for my team this year”

It’s good the 6-foot-9 player has a big back, then. It’s also good for Maryland that despite being a young team, Cleare and almost all of his teammates are taller than their Connecticut opponents. Classmate Charles Mitchell and newly eligible Penn State transfer Jonathan Graham, who both measure up at 6-8, will help take the pressure off Cleare.

‘This is a big role for me and Charles,” Cleare said. “We’re two of the biggest and most physical guys on this team.”

Sophomore Jake Layman says the big men on his team, the ones who do the “dirty work,” as Cleare put it, are ready.

“They’ve worked pretty hard these past two weeks,” Layman said. “There’s no reason they’re not ready for this game right now. They know what they’re going to be facing, so they’re ready.”

Cleare’s also ready to change his luck at Barclays Center. The last time the Terps played in Brooklyn, they returned home with a disappointing 72-69 loss to Kentucky.

“I think last year going into Barclays we weren’t that prepared,” Cleare said. “I just don’t think we were that confident. But this year we are much more aggressive, ready to go.

“This team could be really, really good this year but it’s up to us. We’ve got to execute. … It’s time to turn on the lights now; practice is done.”



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