It was the summer of 2011, and hopes were high for the Maryland basketball program. Mark Turgeon had just taken over the program after four NCAA Tournament appearances in four years at Texas A&M, and was building what would look to be a solid recruiting class.
Virginia guard Seth Allen had committed just days after the hiring, and the Terps were in on a number of high-profile recruits -- led by Houston blue-chip prospects Shaquille Cleare and the Harrison Twins, who played together on the Houston Defenders, a big-time AAU team.
Cleare wasn't quite as highly touted as his five-star teammates, but it certainly wasn't an "offer him so you get the Twins" kind of situation. The center showed his skills and lit the imaginations of Maryland fans everywhere when he received a pass from a Harrison and dunked over Nerlens Noel, a future NBA lottery pick who was considered the top shot-blocker in the nation.
Maryland fans couldn't help but envision a future in which the Harrison Twins were able to feed Cleare the ball inside (or simply take it to the hoop themselves), bringing the program back to the previous heights of Gary Williams.
Now, of course, it didn't happen that way. Maryland grabbed Cleare, but the Harrison Twins ended up at Kentucky (and eventually, in the Final Four). The Terps finished with a top-15 class in 2012 (including Sam Cassell, who didn't end up in College Park), but the star of the pack was Cleare, just barely edging out Jake Layman as the highest-rated commit of the bunch.
Cleare didn't play much in his first game (against Kentucky, pre-Harrison Twins), but showed promise early on, scoring eight points against Morehead State and LIU Brooklyn and 10 against Georgia Southern, with five rebounds. That Georgia Southern game would be one of just four in Cleare's Maryland career where he scored double-digits.
Three games later, Cleare scored 12 against Maryland-Eastern Shore (the most in his Terrapin career), and he dropped nearly off the map after that. His minutes level stayed mostly constant -- between 15 and 20 a game -- but he was stuck taking around three field goal attempts per game, making usually two (or three) of them.
Part of the problem, naturally, was the offense -- Maryland rarely fed the ball to Cleare in the first place (or worked to get him opportunities) -- but the big man never really showed the burst necessary to create his own opportunities inside (or the offensive rebounding ability of Charles Mitchell to turn others' mistakes into his own chances).
There was improvement in Year Two, but it didn't come until late Cleare had just one game with double-digit score in the 2013-14 season (a mid-December clash against Florida Atlantic), a year in which he was expected to take a bigger role in the offense due to the absence of Alex Len.
As Maryland was playing their penultimate ACC regular season game against Virginia Tech, I recalled Cleare's dunk over Nerlens Noel and remarked to my dad that I simply couldn't imagine Cleare dunking over anyone now, no matter the situation. Naturally, Cleare made me eat my words, dunking over a hapless Hokie guard just minutes later. Those last two regular season games were pretty good for the center -- 11 combined points, eight rebounds, two blocks -- and he showed a much quicker first-step and an improved involvement in the offense from what Maryland had seen the previous two years.
If given the time and system, could Shaq Cleare have turned into a legitimate power conference center? Maybe. The desire was certainly there, and the talent was seen by a variety of schools and scouting agencies. For whatever reason, Cleare's time simply did not work out in College Park, and it's a shame that it's ended like this.
Good luck, Shaq, wherever you end up. Here's hoping you can latch on somewhere where you can succeed.