Point guards critical to Terps' success this season

COLLEGE PARK -- During his college career at Kansas, Mark Turgeon can remember Jayhawks coach Larry Brown constantly barking in his ear, more often telling the young point guard what he had done wrong than what he had done right.

"Every day, he was on me," the second-year Maryland coach recalled.

A quarter-century later, Turgeon is doing the same with his point guards, junior starter Pe'Shon Howard and freshman reserve Seth Allen. Despite Howard's lack of scoring and Allen's occasional turnover binges, Turgeon is much happier with his team's point guard play than he was a year ago.

"Our point guard play has been a lot better to this point than I thought it would be, but it has to be better once league play starts," Turgeon said recently. "It has to be consistently good."

The improved play of the point guards this season has contributed significantly to Maryland's 13-1 start going into Wednesday's 8 p.m. game against Florida State (9-5, 1-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference) at Comcast Center. The contrasting styles of Howard and Allen were on display when the Terps opened their ACC schedule with a 94-72 win over Virginia Tech at home Saturday.

Though he missed all five of his shots from the field, Howard did a nice job getting his team in its offense. Howard wound up with six assists, and he slowed high-scoring Hokies guard Erick Green early. Howard finished with six points, going 6-for-6 from the free-throw line.

As he has for much of the season, Allen gave the Terps a huge boost off the bench and led Maryland with a career-high 21 points on 8-for-12 shooting.

"I think it's a really good change of pace when Mark goes from one to the other," said longtime ACC basketball television analyst Dan Bonner, who worked the Maryland-Virginia Tech game. "It's a nice mix."

Allen said Tuesday that he considers himself more of a "combo guard" than a true point guard, but added, "I am getting more comfortable at the [point]. I'm comfortable at both positions, whatever I can do to help the team."

Asked about their differing styles, Allen paid homage to a player he considers both friend and mentor.

"Pe'Shon is such a great facilitator. He finds everybody," said Allen, who has also been used at shooting guard alongside Howard and is averaging 8.1 points a game in a little over 21 minutes. "No matter what happens, me and Pe'Shon are always in each other's ear, talking to each other, telling each other what we see. He doesn't act like he knows everything because he's older. He listens to what I have to say."

Bonner equates a coach-point guard relationship to a father and teenage child when it comes to the family car. Bonner believes Howard has Turgeon's complete trust, while Allen is starting to earn it. "It's just a matter of time before Turgeon gives him the keys," Bonner said.

Said Allen, "I feel like Coach Turgeon trusts me a lot more [than earlier in the season]. He's putting me in games late. That says a lot to trust a freshman late in the game. He just really wants me to play the best I can defensively, and the offense will come."

Turgeon is not the only one talking to his point guards. When Allen took a quick 3-point shot in the first half Saturday and was immediately pulled, assistant coach Scott Spinelli made sure to tell the freshman to be more patient. Turgeon's staff is filled with former point guards who alternate watching tape with Howard and Allen.

Having been in the same situation when he played for Brown, Turgeon knows that too much criticism from too many sources might be counterproductive.

"What I've asked my assistants to do is that when I'm on somebody, they don't get on them," Turgeon said. "If for some reason I'm letting a guy get away with a few things that day, they can respond. If I'm getting on a kid, they don't need to come down on them. We're not great at that all the time. It's hard on them."

But the message seems to be getting through.

Howard, a former shooting guard at Oak Hill who kidded that even his professors were asking him in class why he didn't like to shoot, has been more aggressive looking for his shot to keep opponents from double-teaming Alex Len and the other Maryland big men. Allen, who in a game last month against Monmouth committed seven turnovers in 15 minutes, has cut down on his mistakes.

"Pe'Shon's been really steady, except for shooting," Turgeon said of Howard, who leads the ACC in assist-to-turnover ratio (81-27) and is third in assists. "Seth's [assist-turnover ratio] has almost been 2-to-1. He's a little out of control sometimes. He knows that, I know that. It's something we're working on. His teammates know that, too. It's not a surprise when it happens."

Howard, who missed much of last season after breaking his foot in preseason practice and then tearing an ACL in February, said the number of teammates who can score this year has made him look to pass more. In Saturday's game, 72 of the Terps' points came from newcomers.

He's typically looking to make a pass down to the very moment when he's ready to launch a shot of his own.

"Even when I'm open, when I start to jump ... I'm still looking and I just find the rim at the last second," said Howard, who has missed 32 of the 46 shots he's attempted from the field this season. "That's probably why I miss, actually. I'm really not looking at the rim."

Howard's reaction to making an outside shot?

"A lot of times I make 'em, I'm like, 'That went in, cool,'" he said.

Asked earlier this season if Maryland can win with so little scoring from Howard (4.1 ppg), Turgeon said, "We've got so many good players that we can overcome that, but he has to be more aggressive. ... I don't think Pe'Shon needs to score 10 a game for us to be great. But he needs them to guard him."

With Howard injured for much of last season, the Terps struggled to get into their offense as shooting guards Terrell Stoglin and Nick Faust — and two walk-ons — shared the point guard position. It was one the reasons Maryland finished near the bottom of Division I in assists. Stoglin is gone, Faust is back at his natural position and Howard recently took off his knee brace.

The suggestion was made to Turgeon recently that the play of his point guards will be the key to the team's success in the ACC.

"I don't know if it's the only way we're going to have a great year," he said. "I think there's a lot of holes right now, whether it's our wings playing well or our big guys being consistent. But I think our point guard decision-making has to stay steady, and if they are able to get us into our stuff offensively, whether it's our break or our halfcourt set, I think we have a chance to be pretty good."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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