They had developed a relationship that transcended the standard player-coach hierarchy, so Coach Mark Turgeon felt perfectly comfortable calling out guard Dez Wells in the locker room Wednesday night. After Turgeon finished his spiel about having fun — because in this moment, down nine points to Notre Dame, the Maryland men’s basketball team was certainly having none of it — he looked directly at Wells and said: “Dez, you’ve got to play better. You have to. Relax, have fun and play better.”
Wells was scoreless at intermission, one struggling player among many as the Terrapins were again threatened by an early deficit, another blowout loss on the horizon if things didn’t change. He was 0 for 6 from the field and 0 for 2 from the free throw line. On defense, several mistakes allowed Notre Dame’s Pat Connaughton to catch fire, and his 15 points helped the Fighting Irish surge ahead.
The day before, Turgeon had given his players a motivational list of “13 things mentally tough people don’t do,” one of which was dwelling on the past. So when Turgeon noticed Wells dragging after those missed free throws, he offered a reminder to his team leader that changed the game.
Wells finished with 17 points, a team high. He made all 11 free throw attempts in the second half. For a brief stretch, as often happens in Maryland victories, he was an unstoppable bulldozer in the lane. No more finesse, no more dawdling with useless dribbles around the perimeter. Just pure unchecked force.
“He became a big boy,” Turgeon said. “He bullied them a couple times.”
The maturation of Wells, a junior, has contained plenty of these “big boy” moments. As the Terps labored to disappointing losses to Boston University, Oregon State and even the 20-point blowouts to Florida State and Pittsburgh, Wells thought Turgeon could use a hand keeping everyone in line. So he approached Turgeon and said: “You can’t be the bad guy all the time. I have to come up and get on guys.”
“If I don’t start it, if I’m not the catalyst for us, we’re going to be in for a long season,” Wells said. “I had to look within myself and look within the mirror and say you’re not giving everything you have.”
Wells has still made just eight field goals over the past two games, but has manufactured points from the free throw line and helped energize the second-half comeback Wednesday night. He also handed out three assists and swiped three steals, while committing just one turnover, his lowest in three games and just the second time since Dec. 21 he had fewer than three giveaways. Later, Wells deadpanned that he didn’t plan on reaching the stripe so much. He planned on making layups.
Wells still might possess the team’s best post moves, given how quickly he can spin and elevate for an eight-foot floater. As the Terps regained the lead for good, Turgeon began calling isolation post-ups for Wells, knowing full well that Notre Dame couldn’t guard it.
Later, as he grinned his way through postgame interviews, Wells recalled the advice given by Juan Dixon, the Maryland great and current assistant to the head coach. Dixon had told Wells to start taking advantage of his muscles more, to add a power element to his already diverse portfolio.
“The only difference I think is I made free throws and I didn’t take any three-pointers,” Wells said. “I went to the basket in the first half, but I let the hype get to me, so I went to the basket in the second half, I just wanted to post up and get the ball where I wanted to go and be the best player I could be and work on everything I’ve done in practice and stuff.”
His comments often wind back toward this particular node, that everything Wells has done and will ever do on the basketball court points toward “being the best player I can be.” It’s why his pregame routine starts several hours before tip-off, shooting in a cutoff undershirt with a graduate student manager. It’s why, as the ESPN broadcast at Florida State noted several times, he receives manicures and pedicures to keep his digits feeling fresh.
At some point recently – maybe after Tallahassee, maybe at halftime Wednesday at Comcast Center – Wells overhauled his approach. He demanded more of the Terps and let Turgeon be the good guy. His body language was better against Notre Dame, and included fewer disbelieving stares after unfavorable calls. Later, Wells would recall a quote from Steve Nash, name dropping idols as he is wont to do. According to Wells, once the star NBA point guard stopped taking basketball so seriously, he started playing better. Fancy that.
“I want to be so good, I want our team to play at a certain level and I expect a certain level from my teammates and from myself,” Wells said. “At the same time I have to just remember it’s a game. Just have to love it and play it.”