Mark Turgeon worries. He regularly frets about lineup decisions and inconsistencies, pondering how to extract just a little more each day from his Maryland men’s basketball team. He also speaks with candor. Anything he says to reporters is something he already told the team first.
So believe the second-year coach when he expresses concern over Maryland’s lack of close games. Entering their ACC opener against Virginia Tech on Saturday, the Terps have won 12 straight by an average of 18.3 points. Only the Kentucky loss in the season opener and the Stony Brook win on Dec. 21 came down to the wire. So with 18 conference games ahead, how will Maryland respond to tight games?
“Just close games, if we get into close games how we’re going to handle it. I think we’ll handle it fine. Resistance,” Turgeon said Tuesday after the Terps beat IUPUI, pounding his right fist into his left palm, “sometimes there’s not a lot of resistance when you’re playing teams you’re bigger and stronger than. Actually playing teams that can physically resist us, how we handle that, that’s going to be the deal. We practice against each other every day. With Evan [Smotrycz] we’ve got 11 really good players who bang on each other. Divide them up at the end of every practice and compete. We’ll be ready.”
These last few nonconference games seemed a mere formality. Of course the Terps would beat IUPUI by 18 points and Delaware State by 29. They should and did. But there was a looming sense of exhaustion hanging over Comcast Center, stemming not from over-exertion but from anticipation. The ACC opener against Virginia Tech couldn’t come fast enough.
Maryland wants to establish itself as a physical force, Dez Wells and Pe’Shon Howard both said Tuesday. They want a grind-it-out identity featuring dominant defense and rebounding, to wear down opponents with relentless depth and strength. But the Terps haven’t proved it yet. Instead, they’ve blown out cupcakes all winter, even rolling into Chicago and trouncing Northwestern by 20. A 69-62 win over George Mason in the BB&T Classic on Dec. 2 was far closer than necessary, and Maryland held a 20-point lead over Stony Brook before seeing it erode away to three in the final minute.
Since Turgeon arrived in College Park, he’s preached that good teams take four-point games and win by 10 or 15. Good teams stretch out close games. To make that happen, practices are often harder than games. The Terps alternate between grueling four-minute conditioning drills — simulating the duration between media timeouts — with 20-minute, no-call scrimmages.
They’ve also increasingly simulated game-specific situations. Ten seconds left, down by two points. Ready, set, go.
“Practices are going to be harder than games,” Howard said. “With our talent level, that’s the type of practices you have. You can’t slack off, because the people guarding you at your position is just as good as you. You can’t take any moments off at all. In close games, all our scrimmages, it might be a three-point game. We’re used to being in close situations. The only thing different is having the crowd there.”
Early reports from the athletic department indicate anticipated sell-outs for upcoming ACC home games against Virginia Tech, Florida State (Jan. 9) and North Carolina State (Jan. 16), so crowd support likely won’t be an issue. Now it’s a matter of forcing situations in practice, scouting properly and preparing for the unforeseen.
“I don’t think you can ever simulate the intensity, especially of the ACC, with how good every team is,” Wells said. “I don’t think you can really simulate that. It’s just a matter of us going in practice, really going at each other, taking it to each other every play and not taking any plays off. As far as simulating, we’re doing our best.”