On March 6, Mark Turgeon made a decision. Maryland had lost at home, a 79-68 disappointment against North Carolina that further nailed shut its NCAA tournament coffin. Turgeon saw his players pressing, exhausted by the schedule, burdened by the pressures of postseason.
Ever since taking over in College Park, Turgeon has worked to impose his vision upon the program. Older players left over from the Gary Williams regime, save a select few, were jettisoned. Six newcomers arrived this offseason. It marked a cultural overhaul within Comcast Center, one that still honored the program’s illustrious history, but in Turgeon’s own particular way.
A crucial, last-minute adjustment after the North Carolina loss paved the way for Maryland’s recent success, culminating with an NIT semifinals appearance at Madison Square Garden this Tuesday. In Turgeon’s words, the Terps were going to have fun.
“Now we’re still serious in practice, but we’ve talked about being loose and making runs and things like that,” Turgeon said. “And it’s easy to do this time of year. It’s hard to do in January because it’s such a long season. The guys just started playing better. Did I expect us to play the way we did against Duke in Greensboro? No. I mean I really didn’t. I think that game gave them confidence. So they’ve gained a tremendous amount of confidence throughout the whole process.”
Even before a deep three-game ACC tournament run, Maryland already reaped the benefits of Turgeon’s altered approach. A trip to the movies, complete with popcorn and sodas and any other unhealthy treat typically disallowed by the team’s nutrition standards, helped loosen the Terps up before beating Wake Forest on the road. They shook off a second-half collapse at Virginia, regaining that blasé style in Greensboro, N.C., where they toppled the Blue Devils in the quarterfinals.
“You go through all these players, and you keep saying it’s a long year with certain guys,” Turgeon said. “And they’ve all improved. They’ve all matured. So much more fun to be around in practice day to day.”
Take Jake Layman, for example. At first, Turgeon coached the freshman swingman with tough love, jumping on Layman in practice for little mistakes. Academic issues got Layman suspended for a half against Monmouth in December.
Shortly before winter break, Turgeon eased off the throttle, encouraging Layman’s parents to stay positive with their son over Christmas.
Layman has excelled ever since, becoming the valued point man in Maryland’s full-court press. He started 10 straight ACC games and four straight postseason games, and scored 13 points in a season-high 33 minutes against Alabama last Tuesday.
“Well, he’s just playing with confidence, and he’s really practiced with confidence,” Turgeon said. “I’m a big believer that if guys are practicing well, it usually carries into the game. So it’s carried over for Jake. Made two huge shots, had a nice dunk, a nice layup. He’s just playing loose.
“This time of year, you don’t get on guys about every mistake. It’s next play. Earlier in the year you’re trying to make them better, and Jake’s making a lot less mistakes than he was making earlier in the year, and playing with confidence. And the guys have confidence in him too, which is really great to see.”
Everything is clicking into place for the Terps and Turgeon, both hitting their stride at the same time. Motivational tactics, such as a blown-up NIT bracket in the Comcast Center locker room or a white board at Alabama filled with legendary Madison Square Garden performances, have inspired. Coaching maneuvers, such as calling upon a five-guard lineup against Denver, have succeeded. The players, from Nick Faust (12.3 points, 54.3 shooting over past 11 games) to Pe’Shon Howard (suspended for a game just a month and a half ago), have responded.
“Obviously we’re playing well, we’re playing much better,” Turgeon said. “It’s a whole different deal. I’m just real happy for our players. I’m really happy, because I was on them, not only in practice but publicly. I was like, ‘Are they ever going to grow up?’ Which I don’t usually do. And they’ve responded. They deserve this trip. We’re real excited about this trip.”