Once the dust finally settled and the heads again perked up again after reaching what Coach Mark Turgeon called “rock bottom” in an 11-point loss to Virginia, the Maryland basketball began the week focusing on a single word: commitment.
To cement the point, Turgeon stripped Pe’Shon Howard and James Padgett of their captaincy. Turgeon would become the new captain, though the message focused more on the players still staggering from their Sunday disappointment at Comcast Center. He wanted them to all be leaders, not followers. They reviewed lessons learned from training with Navy SEALs this fall, then endured a week of grueling practices which reminded some of summer workouts.
Then, on Saturday, they beat Duke.
“I’ve done it long enough to try different things,” Turgeon said. “We weren’t acting right off the floor either, academically. There was a lot of things that we put into place that’s going to help them and help our young people and our program. The captain deal was, I don’t like the leadership. That said, I was encouraging everybody to be a leader and not be followers. Some guys were following the wrong thing. Don’t be followers, be leaders.”
Removing the team’s captains was something new. With Howard serving a one-game suspension and Padgett warming up with his teammates, walk-ons Spencer Barks and Jacob Susskind performed the customary handshake for captains at midcourt instead.
Whether Maryland’s 83-81 upset resulted directly from Turgeon’s motivational tactics is one thing. But the Terrapins undoubtedly played their most inspired game of the season, overcoming a season-high 26 turnovers to topple the second-ranked Blue Devils on national television.
After the game, freshman Seth Allen, who sank the game-winning free throws with 2.8 seconds left, said it finally seemed like he and his teammates wanted to win more than Turgeon, something their second-year coach has preached all season.
“I’ve never coached a great team where I wanted it more than that team,” Turgeon said. “I’ve been a head coach, this is my 19 year including my JV teams at Kansas. I’ve had teams where I’ve wanted it more, and they never reached their potential. I’m quite tired of it, to be honest with you. This is your life, you’ve got four years to make the most of it. You’ve got to want it a heck of a lot more than I do.”
Somewhere, between the strenuous practices, soul-searching team meetings or stunning announcements, the light bulb flickered again. The Terps pride themselves on team chemistry, on being a family both in and away from Comcast Center. Lately, as Maryland’s narrative turned from legitimate NCAA tournament contender to disappointment back to a bubble threat, the players have stressed commitment, trying to avoid the individualistic splintering that often occurs during rough patches.
“I think we got the point with being committed,” freshman Shaquille Cleare said. “Coach is being hard on us, but he really wants the best for him and this team. He sees more things than us, that we can change around this program to take it to the next level.
“I’ve been loving it. The workouts have been intense, he’s pushing s and running us and getting us in better shape, making us mentally tough. All of that comes into the word commitment. This is a family. Basketball heritage is big at this school. We just have to carry it on. It’ll come with hard work, do the little things. I think we’ll be successful. But we have to stay committed 100 percent if we’re going to be the team people want us to become.”
Boston College looms Tuesday night, the first of four remaining road games. Beating Duke was a step in the right direction, but the Terps have bigger games ahead, especially with their postseason status still in limbo. Avoiding a letdown while still moving forward together now becomes the team’s biggest challenge.
“I think all week they showed that in practice,” Turgeon said. “Sometimes with a young team, they really don’t know what to do. You keep pushing them, keep pushing buttons. I haven’t always pushed the right buttons this year. We’re 18-7, six to go. We won 17 last year so we pushed a few buttons. You keep trying to find it. That’s one of them. They have to have ownership of this team.”