After a furious second half comeback fell just short in a 72-69 loss to then #3 Kentucky in Brooklyn in early November, I asked University of Maryland basketball coach Mark Turgeon about whether the experience was the next stop in a process of learning how to win for a young basketball team.
Turgeon didn’t mix words in his response, and in the process created a standard that he has since been judged by in just his second season at the helm in College Park.
“We’re gonna win, and we’re gonna win this year. We just didn’t win tonight. I can promise you that.”
He had the chance to slow down or perhaps say something more along the lines of coachspeak terms before wrapping up the answer and postgame press conference, but instead Turgeon looked right back at me and repeated the sentiment.
“We’re gonna win. We’re gonna win.”
Turegon has been known for his honesty, which at times has drawn the ire of Terrapins who believe he should do more to protect his players in the media even if he’s frustrated with them on or off the court behind closed doors. Others have found the coach’s willingness to avoid hyperbole and instead answer questions directly praiseworthy.
On this particular night at the Barclays Center, Turgeon probably didn’t need to be quite so honest. Unfortunately for him, the tone had been set and the success of his second season would be judged against the statement.
Perhaps Turgeon should have qualified his statement by saying something along the lines of “we’re gonna win…at least a couple of times against Duke.”
Maryland is headed back to the NIT for the fourth time in the last nine seasons, only three of which have ended in the NCAA Tournament. They’ll play Niagara Tuesday night in Turgeon’s first postseason appearance since his arrival from Texas A&M, in front of what will likely be a small and hardly inspired crowd at Comcast Center.
Some will attempt to rationalize Maryland’s postseason fate by saying things like “this is a team that came on late and could make a charge through the Tournament” or “perhaps the Terps will use their NCAA Tournament snub to play inspired basketball” or “this will be a good chance for a young team to prove how much progress they’ve made going into next season.”
The truth is that Maryland went just 3-3 after February 28, no progress at all from their 4-4 record from January 30 to February 28. They only appeared to have made some significant progress because they managed to score a second victory over Duke in the ACC Tournament, clearly benefitting from a favorable matchup (partially based on Mike Krzyzewski’s unwillingness to abandon man on man defense) and a hot night from sophomore G Dez Wells.
The Terps did manage to defeat a woeful Wake Forest team and hang with North Carolina until late in Greensboro as well, but neither was drastically different than what we saw from this Maryland team the rest of the season. The Terps beat bad teams more often than not (losses at Georgia Tech and Boston College withstanding) and lost a number of other games against better opponents by close margins thanks to missed opportunities.
There are a number of concerns related to Maryland basketball that remain unaddressed. Many of the questions are related to Turgeon’s in-game decision making, punctuated by the team’s performance coming out of timeouts. (If you’ll remember, Maryland had called a time out at the end of the loss to UNC just before Logan Aronhalt tossed up one of the wilder last second three point attempts you’ve seen. It was particularly troubling because the Terps weren’t quite in their last seconds at that point.)
Many of the questions are related to the uneven performance of Maryland players. Center Alex Len has lacked toughness regularly, a concern that a trip to the NIT won’t help for a player most likely NBA bound in a matter of weeks. Guards Dez Wells and Nick Faust have had flashes of brilliance (Wells more often than Faust), but neither has maintained consistency. The group of players that have attempted to man the point guard position have played up to a level south of adequate.
The best thing to come from a NIT appearance will be extra practice time for Turgeon, a phenomenon akin to a college football team reaching a low level bowl game somewhere in Idaho.
Turgeon did himself no favors with his early season proclamation. The Terps did technically “win”, but did so against one of the worst non-conference schedules in all of college basketball and minimally against a conference that featured fewer NCAA Tournament teams than the Mountain West Conference. The wins over Duke provided moments of joy, but meant little as far as gauging the overall state of the program in comparison to a combined 0-5 record against fellow NIT teams Virginia, Florida State and Kentucky.
It’s easy to say that a run through the NIT would be preferred to a first round exit at the hands of their MAAC opponent Tuesday night, but it’s important to not be fooled by any success. This team appears to be closer to a turnaround than they were a year ago, but they’re still quite a bit away with the fear of future Selection Sunday disappointment quite real.
Happy March Madness.