by David Elfin

Maryland’s second men’s basketball season under coach Mark Turgeon can be easily divided into five parts.

The first was the Nov. 9 opener in Brooklyn against Kentucky. In a battle of two young teams, the Terps pushed the defending national champions to the brink before falling 72-69

Maryland concluded the four-game second part this past Saturday by rallying from a 9-1 deficit to beat Georgia Southern 70-53 behind freshman forward Charles Mitchell’s 13 points and 11 rebounds.

“I’m excited that we opened with Kentucky even though it was a tough loss because it showed us what we were good at and what we were bad at,” said Mitchell, whose teammates feed off his energy but wish sometimes that he would turn off the motor such as when he wants to chat at 1 AM. “And it showed other people that down the road Maryland is going to be a contender.”

It’s too soon to make that statement, but the Terps, as expected, are 4-1 as they visit 6-0 Northwestern tonight in an ACC-Big Ten Challenge matchup before another test on Sunday against 4-2 George Mason in the BB&T Classic at Verizon Center.

After facing the Patriots, Turgeon’s team, which features just four players who saw much time for Maryland last year – guards Pe’Shon Howard and Nick Faust, forward James Padgett and center Alex Len – has six straight home games against the likes of South Carolina State and IUPUI before opening the final part of the season – the 18-game ACC slate — at Comcast Center against Virginia Tech on Jan. 5.

The Terps overachieved to finish 17-15 overall and 6-10 in the ACC last season, but more is expected this year even though guard Terrell Stoglin, the focal point of the 2011-12 offense, left school in the spring in a failed attempt to make the NBA.

Not only are the much-improved Len and the other returnees benefiting from last year’s playing time, but Turgeon added 6-8, 262-pound rebounder Mitchell and 6-9, 270-pound fellow elite freshman Shaquille Cleare as well as first-year guards Jake Layman and Seth Allen and three-point specialist Logan Aronhalt and athletic swingman Dez Wells, transfers from Albany and Xavier, respectively.

Wells was the Sporting News’ Atlantic-10 Freshman of the Year last season while Aronhalt has scored over 1,100 college points. Layman won a gold medal with the national FIBA Americas under-18 team last summer. Allen was the star of the exhibition game victory Indiana (Pa.). Mitchell’s 10 rebounds against Kentucky were the most by a Maryland freshman since future NBA standout Buck Williams in 1978. Cleare, whose massive upper arms resemble Popeye’s, was a top 30 recruit.

“I’m not really playing the way I want to yet,” said Cleare, who’s averaging just 6.2 points and 3.2 rebounds and has only blocked three shots. “People expect a lot from me. I expect to dominate, break backboards. It’s gonna come.”

The six newcomers make the Terps 10 deep, a number which pleases Turgeon but also gives him pause.

“So far I’m comfortable with 10,” Turgeon said after the 67-45 dismissal of visiting Morehead State. “It’s a nice luxury. Probably the hardest thing for me the other night was finding time for everybody and keeping guys motivated to practice hard. That’s why we subbed so much. I had a group of five that … took the lead from 10-12 up to 20 and I subbed them out. I wouldn’t have done that normally.”

So far, all 10 players except Aronhalt are averaging at least 13.8 minutes, but Turgeon expects to whittle to seven or eight regulars for the ACC grind as Maryland seeks to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three years.

“I think by the time we get close to the league [games], you’ll see our substitutions slow down,” said Turgeon, who reached the NCAAs in five of his last six seasons at Wichita State and Texas A&M. “Eight’s an optimal number. Nine’s a good comfort level because you have five guards and four bigs you feel good about. Ten’s hard. I didn’t expect to have 10 this year, but here we are. … It’s better than the alternative.”

The Terps weren’t even invited to the NCAA’s alternative, the NIT, the past two years, but in truth, they haven’t been that formidable since they followed their first Final Four in 2001 by winning the national championship in 2002 under Gary Williams, Turgeon’s predecessor. During the ensuing decade, Maryland won just six NCAA games and never advanced to the Sweet 16. Last year was its worst since 1992-93.

“Last year was tough, but a lot of people we’re surprised that we won as many games as we did,” said Padgett, the last link from Maryland’s last NCAA team. “We’ve got great young guys so … if you don’t produce, you’re gonna lose your spot. If we get on the same page and continue to work hard, we can be a good team. I can’t say when it will happen, but it will come.”

Len, a 7-1, 225-pound native of the Ukraine, has come the furthest in more ways than one. He leads the Terps with 15.6 points, 8.2 points and 26.6 minutes. His production has soared as his stamina has increased.

“You see how much Alex has improved since last season ended,” Turgeon said. “He has a big upside. That’s what I like about our team. You can go through almost 10 guys in the rotation and they all have pretty big upsides. I’m pushing these guys every day to be great and for our team to expect to be great. We’re so new. It takes time [to figure out roles]. I’ve had good teams. We’ll see with this one. If we work hard, I think this one has a chance to be really good.”

David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin


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