GREENSBORO, N.C. – Three weeks ago, as Maryland wallowed at Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion, Coach Mark Turgeon was cooked. Nothing worked. Not his pleas to execute the offense. Not his demands for better defense. Not stamping his feet on the sidelines or clenching his fists or screaming until his voice cracked.
“I’m not sure I wanted this season to keep going,” Turgeon said early Saturday evening, in another moment of brutal honesty. “These guys were tough to coach.”
Now? He can’t wait for what comes next.
After Maryland’s ACC tournament run fizzled against North Carolina, “next” most likely means the National Invitation Tournament. More home games, perhaps against a mid-major regular season champion or two. But at least there’s more basketball. At least Turgeon gets a few more days with this group.
“Now I’m just having a blast coaching them,” he said. “I’m having so much fun. They’re listening. What this group’s done in the last three weeks is pretty amazing. It’s pretty amazing.”
The Jekyll-and-Hyde duality of these Terps settled on the benevolent side for 72 hours at Greensboro Coliseum. Rejuvenated ever since remaining on the road after Georgia Tech, when Turgeon lugged his players to the movies for popcorn and laughs, Maryland reeled off wins over Wake Forest and Duke. Turgeon admitted that beating the Blue Devils in Friday’s quarterfinals “helps me with my fans.” His family heard the criticism. He felt the heat toasting College Park.
Three weeks ago, a run like this was impossible. Even on Wednesday, after the Terps held a brief one-hour open practice, Turgeon couldn’t fathom reaching the ACC tournament final. And barring a few missed layups here, a poorly executed final sequence there, Maryland might just be fighting another day.
The Terps will likely miss the NCAA tournament for the third straight season and sixth time in nine years. But Turgeon measures success based on progress, not bids.
“Unfortunately, in today’s world, you get judged on whether you make that tournament or not,” he said. “But I’m judging us on where our program was when I took the job and where it is today, where we were two months ago, where we were a month ago and where we are today. That’s really how I’m going to judge it.
“I’m really proud of my group. For us to put three days together in a row is pretty good for us. A lot of fight in us. Just took a long time for this young group to realize how hard you had to work to win. What a great tournament for us. It’s a tough three days.”
The past 72 hours were big for Turgeon. They were big for a young team floundering after a 17-point collapse against Virginia in the regular season finale. They were big for a program desperate to erect even the slightest foundation for the future. Dez Wells ratcheted up his game to all-ACC levels. Alex Len was dominant, at least for the brief periods he actually received the ball. Nick Faust discovered his shooting stroke and Pe’Shon Howard reinvented himself at point guard.
“They had almost a new team last year, a new coach, a couple guys and it’s almost a completely new team this year,” North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said. “I just think [Turgeon has] done an outstanding job. It’s a hard job. Coaching in the ACC is not easy. You have everybody’s an expert and the criticism and the whole bit. But he’s one of the toughest individuals I’ve ever been around. I honestly thought he did a better job in the second half with his club than I did with mine. I just have a great deal of respect and care and love for the guy, but he’s one of the toughest competitors I’ve ever seen in my life, and he’s going to do a wonderful job at Maryland, and has this year.”
Williams’s support is expected. He mentors Turgeon, ever since their days together at Kansas. But the pupil outcoached the teacher in the second half, as a gassed Maryland team somehow battled back from several double-digit deficits and had a chance to tie with 10.9 seconds left. It’s hard to imagine how the Terps could have summoned enough strength to play a fourth game in four days against fresh Miami for the ACC title.
But all week they played with the controlled urgency Turgeon had been seeking to inspire since conference play began in January. And if the Terps have truly turned a corner, it’ll show soon enough.
“We came up a little short, but sometimes you don’t win on the scoreboard, but you win,” Turgeon said. “And we won today as a program. Our program got better.”
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