Maryland basketball enters new season with higher expectations

October 8, 2013

Maryland Men’s Basketball Coach Mark Turgeon speaks to reporters during media day. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Seth Allen sprawled across two black folding chairs and rested one arm behind his head. Maryland men’s basketball practices start early these days, so between 8 a.m. workouts, classes and Tuesday’s media day the starting point guard had worn himself out. “I’m too tired right now,” he said, but by the way Allen was busting a gut laughing, few could have even known.

The cameras had left Comcast Center when Allen started entertaining several teammates, them dancing and cackling and quoting whatever particular movie came to mind, him lounging on those chairs and overseeing the chaos like an Egyptian pharaoh. The Terrapins enter a crossroads this upcoming season, with signs pointing toward the program’s first NCAA tournament bid since 2010. The fans expect it and the players know that. But as Allen hoisted himself from the chairs and his teammates scampered away, the burden of expectations seemed the last thing on their minds.

“Whatever we do,” Allen said, “we’re going to take care of business.”

Maybe business means exiting the ACC with a bang, bidding farewell to a conference that gave Maryland, for the first time ever, zero home games against Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State. Maybe it means cutting the turnover rate and better decision-making, which plagued a young Terps team last season and doomed it to the National Invitational Tournament.

Entering his third season, Coach Mark Turgeon says he feels different, in a good way.

“This is a huge year for us to improve on what we did last year,” he said. “And we should. I think we’re ready to make that step. We’re excited about that. It’s a big year for us. Today, I’m happy about where we are and what we’ve done.”

To see Turgeon speak in this manner, glowing over a team whose season opener still lies one month away, is to recognize a changed coach, one who has installed his vision and assembled his roster and can proceed accordingly, without fear of transfers or worries over youthful inconsistencies.

Rarely does Turgeon heap such widespread praise on his team without also talking about its deficiencies, but he has reason for optimism. Even after losing Alex Len, the fifth overall pick in June’s NBA draft, Maryland returns an arsenal of versatile playmakers, including juniors Dez Wells, Nick Faust and Evan Smotrycz. Allen will take on starting point guard duties. His classmate, sophomore Jake Layman, thrived during Maryland’s foreign tour in the Bahamas over the summer, and seems every bit the confident scorer Turgeon hoped he could become. With Len gone, Shaquille Cleare and Charles Mitchell anchor the paint.

All have substantial college experience, and Wells and Smotrycz — transfers from Xavier and Michigan, respectively — have played in NCAA tournament games. All understand Turgeon’s vision, to play fast with crisp execution and furious help-side defense. Allen, Layman, Cleare and Mitchell all live together, and those who don’t come over all the time anyway.

With a talented crop of newcomers, chemistry was seen as a question mark at the start of last season, but the Terrapins blazed through one of the nation’s worst nonconference schedules, underachieved during ACC play and caught fire during the postseason, leading to an NIT semifinal appearance at Madison Square Garden.

But as the players paraded around the gym on Tuesday afternoon, some hamming for pictures, others interrupting interviews with goofy, contorted faces, there was an unmistakable sense of comfort. Their dorm room chemistry often failed to align on the court last season. This time, the players say, it’s for real.

“Everyone’s been together for a whole year,” Mitchell said. “We’re always around each other. There’s never a time we’re not around each other. Most college teams you’ve been around, most teams don’t get along on or off the court. This team? It’s great. We always see each other. The whole day. It’s something you always want. That’s how you build.”

To the NCAA tournament? That’s the plan.

“We all have a sense of urgency that we didn’t have last year,” Wells said. “We had a great team last year. I miss those guys so much right now. But this is this year. This is now. We have a different team. … This is a great team. However you want to put that is your decision. But I think we have a great team and I think we can do great things.”

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.
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Alex Prewitt | October 8, 2013