GREENSBORO, N.C. — On an extended road trip earlier this month — before consecutive losses to end the regular season sent Maryland tumbling into the ACC tournament — Coach Mark Turgeon took his team to the movies.
With a blessing from director of basketball performance Kyle Tarp, the players gobbled candy and caramel popcorn, the sugary snacks typically forbidden by Tarp’s stringent nutrition guidelines. Afterward, the Terps were piled into one massive room at the team hotel, where they talked and joked into the night, just hanging out. Flipped mattresses became wrestling rings. The only thing missing was a burning campfire and toasty s’mores.
“I think that changed us,” Turgeon said Wednesday. “I was so frustrated during the year that I couldn’t make us as good as I wanted to make us as quickly as I could. At some point, you have to go: ‘Okay, this is who we are. Let’s have fun. Maybe that’ll help us.’ Really, since the Georgia Tech game [a 78-68 loss on Feb. 27], I think we’ve had a good time and we’ve been really focused.”
Still, Maryland seemed utterly exhausted Sunday after blowing a 17-point lead at Virginia, its enthusiasm zapped in the regular season finale. Players trudged through John Paul Jones Arena after the game, heads hung, while Turgeon spoke about the summer.
But throughout an hour-long open practice Wednesday afternoon at Greensboro Coliseum, the Terps appeared as relaxed and refreshed as they’ve been during this taxing season, preparing for Thursday’s ACC tournament opener against Wake Forest. Shouts of encouragement filled the empty arena as Maryland’s regulars took charges from its walk-ons. Dez Wells’s tie-dye undershirt, which he picked up outside the White House last season when Xavier, his former team, visited George Washington, was a colorful beacon among a sea of red and white.
“I think it just gives us a chance to be around each other at a time when we’re not focusing on basketball,” said senior Logan Aronhalt, one of six Terps experiencing their first ACC tournament. “I think that’s big. It’s every day, from practice to living together to study hall together to always being at Comcast. And then you go home and flip on the TV and watch a basketball game. It just gives us a chance to separate ourselves from the game, which I think you really need to stay fresh mentally. You can burn out, especially if you’re not used to this long season.”
Despite Turgeon’s assertion that the Terps have peaked in recent weeks, they seemed burned out in the second half against the Cavaliers, when a double-digit lead suddenly turned into a 61-58 overtime loss. Before that was a 79-68 defeat to North Carolina at Comcast Center.
The losses leave only one viable avenue to the NCAA tournament: a deep ACC tournament run.
“In the past, we’ve just been playing and trying to do everything right and trying not to mess up,” Wells said. “And that’s not how you should play this game. When you’re doing that, it’s not fun for you. Just talking to the guys, we wanted to take a load off and go out there and have fun. Every loss hurt. Every win feels great. But you know you take the good with the bad. Just really enjoy this time. It’s the best time of our lives. We really want to live in this moment, go play our hearts out and win this game.”
The Terps need not just one win but several to stave off relegation into the National Invitation Tournament. Get past Wake Forest, which Maryland swept in the regular season, and it’s on to Duke, the ACC’s odds-on favorite since forward Ryan Kelly returned to the lineup. Turgeon’s 10-deep rotation might fare better in a multi-day tournament, but must avoid the inconsistencies that turned them into this underachieving seventh seed.
Any self-imposed pressure, however, has since disappeared. After Wednesday’s practice, two freshmen turned the locker room into their personal playground. With Maryland’s veterans soaking in nearby ice baths, Shaquille Cleare slung Charles Mitchell over his shoulder like a burlap sack. Screaming and kicking in protest did nothing. Mitchell was swept away.