On a night when the Maryland basketball program had a chance to announce it belonged back in the spotlight, the young Terrapin team seized the opportunity.
Despite losing 72-69, Maryland fought tooth and nail with the defending national champion Kentucky Wildcats. Maryland entered the game unranked while Kentucky came in with its own ESPN reality show, a slew of high school All-Americans on its roster and the No. 3 ranking in the land.
Maryland was paced by leading scorer Alex Len. The 7-foot sophomore dominated stretches of the game, proving to be the best player on the court. After the game, Kentucky coach John Calipari called Len a "beast."
Many projections for Len entering the season expected the young man from the Ukraine to make tremendous strides in his game, and in the first game of the year he showed why. He finished with 23 points and 12 rebounds, highs for both teams. Len was quite impressive, and looks poised for an All-ACC type season, if not more, if he can continue with these types of performances.
But Maryland had more than just Len. Entering this season, Maryland coach Mark Turgeon brought in one of the highest rated recruiting classes to College Park in almost a decade. The stars of the recruiting class were big man Shaquille Cleare and guard/forward Jake Layman. Both Cleare and Layman showed some flashes in Brooklyn against the Wildcats, but the star freshmen performances belonged to guard Seth Allen and forward Charles Mitchell.
Allen, a lightly recruited combo guard from Woodbridge, Va., showed that he may soon be starting. In more than 20 minutes, Allen scored nine points and dished out five assists. Perhaps Allen's most impressive stat was that the freshman commited zero turnovers in 25 minutes of play. When the Terps briefly held a lead in the second half, it was Seth Allen who hit the three to put them there.
"Seth's a big time scorer," Turgeon said after the game. "He's going to be great for us."
Allen plays with a decisiveness that the other Terp guards seem to lack. He drives when he wants to, shoots when the shot is there, and makes the right passes. It also seems pretty obvious that on the court Allen plays with a chip on his shoulder. He was lightly recruited. Many "experts" questioned Turgeon when he offered Allen a scholarship. Now, it certainly looks like the coach made the right move.
Allen impressed, as did fellow freshman Charles Mitchell. Mitchell's recruitment came with more fanfare than Allen's, but the Georgia big man was not expected to make this significant of a contribution to the Terps this early. Mitchell showed his commitment to the team by slimming down in the offseason, entering the season with more stamina than he ever had in his high-school career.
In 16 minutes against a big Wildcat front court, Mitchell hauled down 10 rebounds, six of them on the offensive end. In the late minutes of a tight game, Turgeon went with Mitchell on the court teamed up with Len down low. That two-some, combined with Cleare and senior James Padgett, could be a lot for other teams in the ACC to handle.
Mitchell's game isn't without faults -- he is a freshman, after all. Repeatedly Mitchell was drawn out to the permiter when gaurding Kentucky's 6'10" Kyle Wiltjer. Despite his height, Wiltjer is more of a shooter than a banger. Mitchell looked uncomfortable guarding along the three-point line, and it is something the big man will have to work on. Wiltjer led the Wildcats in scoring with 19 points, 12 points coming from behind the three-point line.
Where Mitchell looked quite comfortable was in the paint, fighting for real estate and crashing the glass. Rebounding is as much hustle and determination as it is positioning and angles. For a freshman, Mitchell seems to understand that well ahead of the curve.
"Our young kids, all four of them, are ready for this stage," Turgeon said after the game about the freshmen class of Allen, Cleare, Mitchell and Jake Layman.
As the season progresses, it would be no surprise if one or both of Allen and Mitchell enter the starting lineup. Many coaches say that it doesn't matter who starts; rather, what matters is the players on the court at the end of the game. Considering that, Maryland fans should come to expect Allen and Mitchell finishing games for the Terps, just like they did against Kentucky.
Turgeon did not hide some frustration after the game.
"We are disappointed in the loss," he said. "We fully expected to win the game coming up here and we didn't do it. We weren't very good in the first half and I thought Kentucky was great."
Calipari did not go quite as far, but the famous Kentucky coach allowed that if Maryland did not shoot quite so bad from the three point line -- the Terps went 3 for 19 from deep -- they could have pulled off the upset. The Maryland team showed great resolve in the second half, storming all the way back from a 49-36 halftime deficit.
Calipari said he thinks Maryland "could be really good." Even in the loss, Turgeon evoked a similar idea.
"If tonight did anything for us, it energized our fan base. That's big for us," Turgeon said. "We're going to win. We're going to win this year. We just didn't win tonight."