Decisions, decisions: Maryland's starting five still unsettled

USA TODAY Sports

Performances of bench players are giving Mark Turgeon some difficult choices when it comes to his starting lineup.

Maryland, like almost all teams do, was bound to have some questions arise over their starting lineup at some point. It's just a bit surprising that the questions are finally coming when they are.

For the vast majority of the year, Mark Turgeon has been particularly consistent with his starting five. Pe`Shon Howard, Nick Faust, Dezmine Wells, James Padgett, and Alex Len: that's been the Terps' starting unit for every game of the year, save two games used to give bench players a taste of starting and another in which Charles Mitchell usurped Padgett. Most coaches like to get their starting five figured out by the conference slate; Turgeon, it seemed, despite minimal experimentation, had his.

And then came the Virginia Tech game, and all of a sudden questions are everyhwere.

Mitchell started in place of Padgett, for the second game in a row. Faust, who had been banged up in practice and was suffering from back spasms, was replaced by Jake Layman. And between Mitchell outplaying Padgett, Layman breaking out with one of the best performances of any Terrapin throughout the year, and even Seth Allen continuing his strong performances - a 21-point outbreak, the third game in a row he's been in double digits in scoring - Maryland's best, most effective five is no longer so settled.

Now, as with any discussion about starting lineups, the usual disclaimers apply. Mark Turgeon has historically often used the starting lineup as a motivator, meaning that the starting five may not always be Turgeon's preferred five, in the strictest sense of the word. (See Terrell Stoglin as a prime example.) And, as always, who starts isn't as important as who gets the most minutes - better to be a finisher than a starter, all that.

That's especially true in this instance, given all of Maryland's depth. Turgeon has ten men, and he likes to use all of them quite a lot. Who starts isn't necessarily a great indication of who'll be most important at any one point in the game, which is often going to be determined by matchups and who has the hot hand.

With all of that said, there's still relatively little evidence to suggest that Turgeon views the starting five as purely ceremonial. Throughout his year and a half in College Park, his starting five has usually his best or at the very least favored five, except when an occasional point is being made. That makes a discussion about which grouping is best for the Terrapins an interesting, worthy one to have.

Let's start with he most obvious choice: Padgett or Mitchell at power forward? Padgett, one of only two seniors on the team, has been a reliable, if unspectacular, option this season, averaging 7 points and 4.4 boards in just under 19 minutes of play. Mitchell has been objectively much more productive, averaging nearly two fewer minutes per game but nearly the same points and upwards of two more rebounds. But what Mitchell really brings is more than just raw numbers: he's a gigantic energizer bunny, a sparkplug everywhere but especially on the boards. His rebounding percentages - 18% offensively, which is best in the ACC, and 25% defensively, which is fourth - are astounding for a freshman, and while Padgett's numbers are respectable, they don't come close to Mitchell's.

One of Turgeon's biggest concerns is rebounding, especially offensively, since he relies upon that to make up for lost possessions from turnovers and the low number of forced turnovers. And no one does it better on the roster, maybe even in the conference, than Mitchell. Turgeon's preference for him is obvious and understandable.

That said, starting Mitchell could limit his effectiveness. In his three starts, he's been unusually quiet: against South Carolina State, he managed two points and two rebounds in only eight minutes; against IUPUI, he finished with seven points and five rebounds in twenty minutes; against Virginia Tech, it was six points and five rebounds in 17 minutes. Not bad performances, for sure, and he's had quiet games off the bench, as well, so it may yet be early to draw conclusions. But he's at his best as a sparkplug, with his endless motor and energy. That means he's usually at his best off the bench, when he can play against a tiring opposition and the difference in energy is more pronounced. But that's still uncertain, and if Turgeon needs an example to show what to do in practice and that's Mitchell, that's hardly the worst thing in the world. After all, Padgett himself hasn't done much as a starter to command a spot regardless.

The other, more intriguing question (at least more intriguing to me): did Jake Layman's 20-point, 8-rebound, 3-assist, 2-block performance earn him another shot in the starting lineup?

The initial instinct for most is to say no, not at all. After all, Faust - the player whose spot he'd take - has played fairly well, and Layman has been among the most invisible players in the team. In fact, if there was going to be an odd-man-out of the ten-man rotation in conference play, it was virtually certain to be Layman. Throughout the non-conference schedule, Layman looked lost and unassertive, a shell of the player who was one of the stars of the USA U-18 team over the summer. Making that sort of switch after one good performance seems rash.

But Layman seemed to turn a corner after the holiday break, with Turgeon saying that time with his family helped him mentally regather himself. That looks to be true: he averaged 22 minutes per game, 2.5 assists, and 5.5 points on 5-11 shooting in the two games after Christmas, looking significantly more dialed-in. Read how he's changed himself mentally, and you'll see that the Layman who was playing earlier in the year probably isn't the guy we've seen lately.

So when Faust, who's scored in double-figures only once in his past five games, had issues with back spasms, it was Layman, not Seth Allen, Turgeon turned to. And Layman rewarded him with a lights-out game, playing nearly flawless basketball except for a few defensive lapses and a forced shot or two. He shot well, he passed well, he rebounded, he blocked shots - it was the type of game you can't simply ignore. He completely set the tone for the dominant win, and was arguably the biggest cog in the Terps' victory. Whether or not Layman starts in the future, he'll get more minutes.

But it may well be worth seeing if starting is exactly what Layman needs. The least-developed part of his game is inarguably his mentality and focus, as he can often drift in and out of games. Coming off the bench can often exacerbate that problem, because sitting on the bench invariably leads to a drop in focus. And that may in fact be the case with Layman, who has found playing time difficult to come by at times. But he's started two games this year - once against UMES, when Turgeon was rotating the lineup, and then again against Virginia Tech - and they've been far and away his two best performances, as he dropped 10 points in 22 minutes on 4-7 shooting against the Hawks.

As with most players, it just might be the case that Layman's more dialed into the game when he's on the court at the tip. In a perfect world, starting him to get the best out of him wouldn't be necessary. But it's not a perfect world, and if Turgeon can get an athletic, sweet-shooting 6-9 wing like Layman performing even half as well as he did against VT, that changes the paradigm for Maryland in a big way. Sitting Faust for Layman would be a gamble, especially without a tune-up game against the likes of Wake Forest or Boston College anytime soon, but after seeing what Layman did to Tech, it may well be worth a try. That's especially true with Faust looking more average than spectacular as of late.

The last question occasionally asked is also the easiest to answer: does Seth Allen deserve a spot in the starting five? After all, he's fifth for Maryland in minutes played, fifth in scoring, the team plays better with him on the floor, and he just dropped 21 points on ACC opposition. So why do I feel like he's much farther away from the starting lineup?

Two reasons. The first: who does he replace? He's not a pure point guard the way Pe`Shon Howard is, and even if he can play there effectively, playing with him as the main guy is a risk that isn't necessary, especially with Howard playing as one of the more efficient distributors in the conference at the moment. More importantly, Allen is one of Maryland's most dangerous offensive weapons, and being able to bring him in off the bench as a second wave of scoring is a huge tool. He's a terror when the game opens up, and most second units simply can't handle him. Coming in at the point or off the ball is perfect for him at this point, and it's working great for Maryland.

That aside, though, Turgeon has some calls to make. Faust should be back by Tuesday, and my gut says that if he's 100% he'll probably start. Anything less than that, though, and Layman has done enough to make Turgeon feel comfortable giving him the nod. And when dealing with Florida State's length - the Seminoles are the longest team in the conference - Layman's athleticism and 6-9 frame could come in handy.

Regardless of what happens immediately, one thing's clear: even if the starting lineup isn't a determinative factor for Maryland and Turgeon - and it's anything but, given Turgeon's proclivity for chopping and changing - it's going to be mighty interesting to watch it take shape.

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