COLLEGE PARK, Md. — As University of Maryland basketball coach Mark Turgeon closed his final press conference of 2011, he slipped in a comment that told a bigger story.
After the Terrapins’ 75-63 win over Samford University Saturday afternoon at Comcast Center, I asked Turegon if he felt his team had improved as much over the last two games as he had expected. The Terps (9-3) played just their second game this season with their full complement of healthy scholarship players in the win over the Bulldogs (3-9).
Turgeon’s answer made a lot of sense at first.
“I thought we really played well against Albany (in a win Wednesday night), I wasn’t certain that we would beat them to be honest but we really played at times. Today we took a big step.”
Sure they did. Maryland lead by as many as 20 points in their win over their Southern Conference foe and Turgeon was able to put in all of his walk-on players in the game’s closing minutes. As I considered writing a column about the team’s improvement over the last ten days, I felt as though the coach had given me a very usable quote. But then he threw in a curveball.
“If we learn how to practice better we can keep taking these steps. I threw them out yesterday in the morning and brought them back last night. Hopefully they will know that we won’t take bad practices. I have high expectations for this team.”
Maybe you should re-read that. I’ll wait.
You read it correctly both times. Turgeon called a 9:30am practice Friday morning (G Terrell Stoglin told us players had to be on the floor at 9:15am) and then proceeded to send his players home after being frustrated by their effort. Players guessed they weren’t on the floor a full 30 minutes before being sent off. Turgeon then forced players to scramble to get back to the arena for a 7pm practice to get a better effort out of his group.
You can imagine a surprise Friday night practice wouldn’t sit well with a group of college students.
“We all had plans” Stoglin said Saturday while shaking his head.
But here’s the thing, instead of bitching and moaning and whining and complaining (or as Turgeon likes to say, “saying boo”), the players appeared to understand the reasoning behind Turgeon’s decision and handled it well.
“It wasn’t too surprising” G Pe’Shon Howard said. “The two plays leading up to (being sent home), he just went off. I definitely saw it. I take partially the responsibility for that, being the point guard I’ve got to be a leader.”
Howard fully understood the reason why improvement is necessary in practice.
“It just wasn’t acceptable for a team that’s trying to get to the NCAA Tournament. You see how our conference is, we really could do well. We have to bring it every day in practice if we want to be good, we just can’t do it on the court in games. You saw the potential we have today.”
Howard said stopping practice was nothing new to him, as former coach Gary Williams would regularly kick players out of practice. But Williams would have players meet together and talk to the assistant coaches, then bring the group back to the floor without leaving the arena.
That wasn’t the case Friday, as players faced an entirely new schedule after their lackluster effort in the morning.
Turgeon has been trying to push buttons all season, including all but benching F/C Ashton Pankey for the team’s win over Notre Dame in the BB&T Classic and at times offering public criticism of players during press conferences.
Just a day earlier, Turgeon had told reporters that he considered benching Stoglin for the team’s Wednesday night win over the University of Albany out of frustration about Stoglin’s defensive effort. Stoglin promised the coach his defense would improve and Turgeon was happy with the effort he received from his leading scorer.
Once again, Stoglin did not appear to have an issue with Turgeon’s criticism.
“When (Turgeon) told me I wasn’t going to start, it just showed me that I’m not too good or anything” the sophomore guard said Saturday after the Samford win. “You’ve got to always play hard, so I decided I’m going to play defense from now on. It’s a challenge. If that’s what it takes to win, I want to do it.”
It was a seemingly mature response that would make you believe the coach is really getting to his players.
Stoglin could have said something along the lines of “Bench me? I’m the only good offensive player you have!” He could have tried to show his coach up during the Albany game by playing better defense but not trying as hard on the offensive end. We’ve seen plenty of talented athletes alter their play in an attempt to send a message to a coach over the years.
That doesn’t appear to be the case for Maryland.
Instead of whining and moping up and down the floor Saturday, the Terrapins responded with one of their more complete efforts. Stoglin was outstanding again, nailing six of eight attempts from beyond the arc en route to a game high 24 points. Freshman C Alex Len reached double figures for the second time in as many career games and added seven rebounds. Even struggling freshman G Nick Faust got hot, drilling three of four attempts from outside on his way to a 13 point, four assist performance.
I guess you can Turgeon has been pushing the right buttons.
It’s worth pointing out that these buttons are easier to push when the team is winning. With just a visit from Cornell Tuesday night remaining before Maryland opens Atlantic Coast Conference play, it can be assumed that Turgeon will have to figure out a way to reach his players in more trying times before the season ends. Maryland could well find themselves in the midst of a three or four game losing streak or having suffered a 20-30 point defeat at the hands of one of the conference’s powers (Duke, North Carolina) and it might not be quite as easy for Turgeon to get a rational response from his kids.
But right now, it’s working. And for a first year head coach in a difficult situation, it’s hard to not be impressed.