Mark Turgeon sounded relieved, without the faintest trace of irony, when he told reporters during Wednesday’s press conference that he was looking forward to a nine-day break between games. His Maryland basketball team had slogged through a miserable first half and, despite running up a season-high 33 point margin of victory against Monmouth, also had a season-high 23 turnovers and plenty more mental miscues.
And so these Terrapins, owners of a nine-game winning streak, the program’s longest since 2002, are almost midway through this lengthy vacation, at least on paper. Turgeon and his assistants have interspersed recruiting trips across the region with meetings, while the players finished up academic work during exam period.
Most importantly, they’ve been working.
“These are just the grind days, the days when you get better as a team and really bond,” sophomore guard Nick Faust said. “We don’t have much class at all. We’re together a lot, a lot of two-a-days and weights. These are the times when you get better as a team overall.”
The bonding will only enhance the chemistry among one of Turgeon’s closest teams, but this break provides Maryland an opportunity to catch up and work out the kinks before ACC play begins in 21 days against Virginia Tech.
High up on the checklist will be further acclimating Maryland’s four freshmen, who at times have infuriated Turgeon with inconsistencies, but will be counted on to provide quality, mistake-free minutes once conference games arrive.
Turgeon scheduled weaker non-conference opponents to “throw them into the fire,” comfortable knowing that the Terps can afford mistakes and still not suffer in the win column.
“I feel like I keep giving these guys minutes, hoping they’re going to get better,” Turgeon said Wednesday. “Big stretch for us. Starting tomorrow they can start watching more film, start doing more things. Our freshmen weren’t very good. Everyone talks about what a great class this is. To me, you judge a class when they graduate. They have to get a lot better for us to get where we want to be this year.”
Each freshman has indeed exhibited flashes of brilliance thus far this season. Charles Mitchell became a surprise rebounding monster, while Seth Allen strung together some solid stretches, even improving with his decision-making at point guard. Shaquille Cleare came on strong against Maryland-Eastern Shore and South Carolina State. Jake Layman, still catching up to the game’s speed, hasn’t quite found a groove but confidence remains high that he’ll figure things out soon enough.
The regression against Monmouth, albeit disconcerting to Turgeon within the moment, doesn’t seem concerning in the long run. It was just one of those flush-it-and-move-on games, a few players said. Allen had “his worst game of the year,” according to Turgeon, while Mitchell and Cleare both drew criticism for their post play.
The adjustment period has taken perhaps longer than expected, but this nine-day break provides more time. When Dez Wells was a freshman at Xavier, he needed a few games to catch up, but turned things on once January rolled around.
“It’s just the mentality that you have to have, to come on the court every day, you want to get better and force yourself into a rhythm,” Wells said. “Nothing’s going to be given to you on this level or the next. You just have to bring it every day. You can’t take any plays off. That’s the beauty of basketball.”
As one of Maryland’s most ardent leaders, Wells put the onus on himself to become more vocal with the four freshmen, jumping them for mistakes as much as he does for exciting plays. When things are down, Wells reasoned, the Terps’ youngsters need him more than ever.
“In the second half of the season, freshmen aren’t considered freshmen anymore,” Wells said. “They’re not freshmen, they’re almost considered upperclassmen. They have to take it a lot more seriously than I guess they do. But that’s on the veterans. That’s on us. We have to demand more from them and stay on them, a lot more than we would some of the other veterans. We have to guide them. We have to stay in their ear.
“From high school they’re used to dominating and doing whatever they want. It’s not like everybody’s just as quick as you, fast as you, just physical. Nothing about your game sticks out. Your mental game has to be further advanced than physically on this level.”
For a tight-knit group desperate to access that ever-elusive consistency, the Terps are relishing this basketball-centric break, the books behind them until next semester, with nothing left but an empty, inviting Comcast Center ready for work.
“Long breaks or not, I know these guys are going to be in the gym regardless,” Cleare said. “I don’t care if the break’s two weeks or months. You could come in this gym during Christmas break or on Christmas day, I’m sure there will be some players working on their game or whatever. I don’t think personally a break will affect us. It’s a great team, we work hard and we have a bright future ahead of us.”