Mark Turgeon has done his best to temper expectations this season, stemming both from the external excitement amplified by Dez Wells’s late-summer arrival and the internal confidence generated by a 13-game nonconference winning streak. Fans clamored for inclusion in the national polls. The NCAA tournament? Earlier this month, a berth seemed to be a given.
Reality hasn’t quite matched up to expectations, at least through a grinding January stretch that included road losses to Miami, North Carolina and Duke. Wednesday night’s game at Florida State now looms large, as it’s Maryland’s biggest remaining road test until a trip to pesky Virginia on March 10 to close the season.
But one thing remains the same. Turgeon still seems insistent on playing down the expectations, of protecting his young players from the burgeoning hype and, to a certain extent, the bad feelings incurred from their recent disappointing stretch.
“I think sometimes when you’re at a major program like this, which is why I wanted to be here, expectations sometimes get ahead of the team,” Turgeon said Tuesday. “Have to remember where we were last year and where we are today.”
Of course, the Terps have come miles since Turgeon’s inaugural season. Scoring transfers from both a bona fide gunner (Logan Aronhalt) and the Atlantic 10 freshman of the year (Wells) does that, not to mention bringing in a four-man freshman class stocked with personalities and talent, as well as the emergence of a likely top five NBA lottery pick in Alex Len.
And no matter how much Turgeon might wish the expectations would go away so his team can simply focus on playing basketball, they are just part of the game. So all he can do is communicate to his young group, trying to channel their attention and focus on the future, rather than dwell too much on the past.
“I think it’s just communication,” Turgeon said. “When you get in the league, you communicate a lot more. When things are rolling, you’re trying to teach guys the system, and now it’s teaching them how to win big games. And so it’s just communication. My voice is what matters. Of course I don’t read or listen, so I don’t know what’s out there. I know what I say. Someone told me what Charles [Mitchell said after the Duke game], I totally disagreed with it, so Charles and I talked about it. It’s just communication. Where I think we are and what we need to do and where we’re heading and why I think we’re not doing well. It’s just coaching.”
Against veteran-laden teams like the Seminoles, Turgeon likes referring to Maryland as “puppies,” going up against the conference’s big dogs. Except as each day goes by, the Terps become a little more mature, a little more used to late-game situations. And so “youthful immaturity” becomes less of a viable excuse as well.
“He’s pretty right,” Shaquille Cleare said. “We’re a young team. But I don’t think it’s an excuse. A lot of teams around the country have a lot of young players. They’re playing well together. I think he’s right. We have a lot of growing up to do. We still have to mature a lot, do the little things. It’s still early in the season. No need to throw in the towels early. I feel like we’ll progress through ACC play.
“It is a growing process. You’ll have your ups and your downs. It’s fine, though. All of these games that we lost is a learning experience. We’ll go back on film, learn from our mistakes and go back for the next game.”
That immaturity issue has been exemplified through the benchings dealt to Seth Allen (one half vs. Duke after he was late to a team meeting), Jake Layman (benched for one half vs. Monmouth because he was slacking off on his academics) and Charles Mitchell (benched the majority of the first half at Miami because of an “in-house” disciplinary issue).
“I said after the game, [Duke senior] Mason Plumlee had somebody to learn from,” Turgeon said. “He learned from somebody else, now Mason Plumlee’s teaching those guys how to act, how to practice. New coach, everything goes different directions, you don’t have a lot of upperclassmen, different guys to learn from. Our guys are learning from young guys, they’re learning from coaches. It’s all part of the process. Do I think it’s a big deal? Yes and no. I’m disappointed that Seth was late, but it’s part of college basketball and team sports. To me, you sit him, played half the game, played 10 minutes, move on.”
Pretty soon, Turgeon said, Maryland will become a more veteran team. The freshmen will be sophomores, with one year of ACC play under their belts. The Terps will get transfer Evan Smotrycz eligible, a long forward with solid three-point shooting abilities.
But that time seems so far away. Maryland still has 11 regular season games remaining, and whatever postseason play comes thereafter. Immaturity, both on and off the court, might still remain an issue, at times rearing its ugly head, but in Turgeon’s mind the Terps have already come so far.
“We’re getting there,” he said. “Is it where it needs to be? No. We’re still playing four freshmen and three sophomores a lot. Are they better today than they were a month ago? Yes, absolutely. It’s not that big a deal. Late for a meeting. We’ve all been late, haven’t we?”