For Mark Turgeon and Maryland basketball, offseason has extended cycle of attrition


Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon has brought heralded recruits to College Park but has missed the NCAA tournament his first three seasons. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

On May 11, 2011, the Maryland men’s basketball team introduced its first new head coach in 22 years , and Mark Turgeon, the man taking over the program Gary Williams had led defiantly and successfully, told reporters: “My style of play is winning.”

At the time, those words seemed more apt than boastful, given Turgeon’s success at Wichita State and later Texas A&M . He quickly assembled a staff of assistants with reputations as top-notch recruiters. Promising prospects showed corresponding interest.

But three years later, Turgeon has little to show for his time at Maryland. The Terrapins have missed the NCAA tournament field the past four seasons, their longest drought since 1989-93. Two of his original three assistant coaches are no longer with the program. Of the six recruits signed by Turgeon in the past two years, just three remain. And with four scholarship players transferring out of the program in the past month , frustration has turned into concern among Maryland boosters and fans.

Other program insiders have suggested that the recent departures may help locker room chemistry, and the Terps once again will welcome a heralded freshman class this fall. Athletic Director Kevin Anderson has maintained his full-throated support of Turgeon, who has five years remaining on a deal that pays him nearly $2 million annually. After the most recent departure, players including forward Evan Smotrycz and guard Dez Wells took to Twitter, offering support to the program and thanking fans for sticking with the Terps.

But Turgeon himself acknowledged that the on-court disappointment and off-court turnover is affecting the perception of his program, and said he accepts “full blame.” Asked recently whether he thought his program had improved despite the departures, Turgeon said: “I do, but I don’t think people are going to believe it. The ones that are back and the ones coming in are totally committed to it. I think it is. I’m fine. I know everybody out there at Maryland nation is . . .”

Turgeon paused, searching for the right word. Some message board posters have called for his job. Many have, at least, demanded explanations for the exodus. So Turgeon decided against one specific word to describe the mood, and instead settled on a note of acceptance.

“I don’t blame them,” he said. “I totally get it. I totally understand what the fans are feeling.”

Under Turgeon, the Terps have labored to break a cycle of disappointment. Strong recruiting classes have raised expectations, then poor seasons have crushed them, only to be replaced by new recruits and fresh hope. In Turgeon’s words, the Terps have never been truly “old,” with just three seniors over the past two seasons, none of whom averaged more than 15.5 minutes per game.

Next season’s roster will have 11 scholarship players. Five will be freshmen.

“I do think it carries over,” Turgeon said of the arrivals and departures. Players think, “ ‘Yeah, they left, so I guess it’s okay to leave.’ But we’ve got to stop it. We’ve got to get it stopped somehow.”

Though the hire of a new assistant coach or the announcement of a transfer into the program could provide a jolt of good news, the dominant story line of this offseason is of Maryland having lost 37 percent of its minutes played, 35 percent of its points scored and 35.8 percent of its shots taken from last season in the form of four players who simply decided it best to stop playing at Maryland and go somewhere else.

“The University of Maryland’s most valuable asset is arguably its men’s basketball program,” said Steve Baldwin, a prominent team booster. “Everybody in the administration, from the regents to the president to the athletic director, should demand excellence in men’s hoops. It’s time for Maryland to be the top 10 program it should be. And if this administration, from the president to the athletic director to the coaching staff, can’t get it done, then the school needs to consider replacing all of them.”

Struggling for victories

Turgeon swept into College Park in 2011 having built a burgeoning mid-major power at Wichita State and led once-dormant Texas A&M to four straight NCAA tournaments. He brought acumen needed to replace a retiring Hall of Fame coach, having played and coached in Final Fours at Kansas. He said he hoped Maryland would be his final job.

Initial attrition, typical at programs nationwide in the immediate wake of coaching changes, left Turgeon with just six scholarship players on his first day, and his debut season was played with inherited parts. He essentially wiped the slate clean after that 2011-12 season, returning only four scholarship players and welcoming a four-man recruiting class comprising a highly recruited center (Shaquille Cleare), an athletic, touted wing (Jake Layman), a scrappy rebounder (Charles Mitchell) and an under-the-radar guard who wound up being more productive than any of his classmates (Seth Allen).

The Terps reached the National Invitation Tournament semifinals in 2012-13, notching 25 wins, matching the most by a Maryland team since the 2002 national champions. In the offseason, center Alex Len left school early for the NBA and point guard Pe’Shon Howard transferred to be closer to his ailing grandmother. But most other meaningful players returned, including Wells, the leading scorer. Plus, they were getting the area’s best recruit in Suitland High’s Roddy Peters.

With optimism high and Turgeon saying that an NCAA tournament bid was the natural next step, Maryland regressed in 2013-14, losing five one-possession games, finishing 17-15 — the same record as in Turgeon’s first year — and missing the postseason altogether. The Terps did so without a director of basketball operations, the staff member charged with logistical assignments like booking travel, because Dustin Clark was promoted to assistant coach to replace Dalonte Hill, who resigned in November facing a DUI charge for the third time in five years.

Nick Faust, a junior and the only remaining scholarship player from Turgeon’s first season in College Park, was an integral part of Turgeon’s rotation, averaging 9.4 points and logging the fifth-most average minutes on the team primarily as a sixth man. But neither Peters, who averaged 4.1 points in 15.1 minutes per game , nor Cleare (3.0 points and 2.5 rebounds in 13.8 minutes ), lived up to the expectations that preceded their arrivals.

Dealing with attrition

On April 8, the program announced three players would transfer. Each made sense individually, and soon fans reconciled the losses given the players involved, the rationale behind the decisions and the remaining talent on Maryland’s roster. Faust wanted to showcase his scoring talents elsewhere, his father Anthony said in an interview. Peters struggled with off-court issues, several sources said without specifying, that needed to be addressed away from the influence of his nearby home town. Cleare realized that salvaging an underwhelming college career hinged on playing somewhere else. He has signed with Texas.

In a way, this has become standard in college basketball. More than 400 Division I players are transferring this offseason, according to an ESPN list. But the Terps have endured more than most. During Turgeon’s tenure, Maryland’s eight transfers (including A.J. Metz, who as a preferred walk-on was ensured a roster spot) are tied for 18th among all Division I programs and tied for fifth among power conference schools.

Because of those circumstances, stomaching the three players’ departures simultaneously became easier, even as Maryland also dealt with another assistant coach, Scott Spinelli, leaving the staff for his native New England and the same position at Boston College.

Then came the tipping point: Four weeks after the departures of Faust, Cleare and Peters, Allen requested his release. Turgeon said he was “blindsided” by the decision. Allen was poised to play a significant role in Maryland’s first Big Ten season. During his sophomore season he adjusted to playing point guard after moving from shooting guard, then recovered from a broken foot to average 13.4 points , second on the team. The arrival of heralded point guard recruit Melo Trimble would allow Allen to spend more time at what had been his natural position. Turgeon consistently told reporters how Allen was playing at “such a high level.”

In a recent interview with the Baltimore radio station WNST, Allen said he wanted to play point guard in the NBA, so finding minutes at that position took top priority. He was vague about other reasons — “It’s more than basketball,” he said, and “I’m not here to badmouth the program” — but said Maryland’s upcoming move to the Big Ten played a small role in his decision. A little more than a week later, Virginia Tech officials confirmed Allen’s decision to transfer there.

Allen called Turgeon “a great coach” in the radio interview and added, “It’s going to be hard to start at first, but Maryland will be good.”

Allen has not responded to voicemails and text messages requesting comment. Neither have Faust, Peters nor any of their parents. Cleare was the only Terps transfer to discuss his decision in an interview. “Next year’s squad is going to be really good,” he said. “I hope Turgeon really gets the ball rolling.”

Many feel it is essential.

“I have confidence in Mark Turgeon,” ESPN.com’s Jeff Goodman said. “I do. I think he’s a really good coach. I think he’s proven it. Did he misevaluate, whether it’s on the court or off the court, with a couple kids? Yes, and that happens. But yeah, am I surprised? I thought they’d get into the NCAA tournament this past year. I’ve been wrong, but I do think this year is a pivotal year for him.”

Optimistic outlook

Last week, the Friends of Maryland Basketball held its annual banquet at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda. More than 150 supporters paid $120 a plate to attend the event, held in a ballroom overlooking the golf course. Crab cakes were served. Radio analyst Chris Knoche hosted. When Turgeon spoke, he introduced his coaching staff — including new director of basketball operations Cliff Warren — and thanked fans for their support.

Then everyone watched a video. It showed highlights of Trimble, the McDonald’s all-American at O’Connell High who will ride the crest of the latest wave of expectations for the program, especially in the wake of Allen’s transfer. The night Allen first told Turgeon he wanted to leave, Turgeon called Trimble and told him to be ready. Once Trimble came to campus on June 2, he would be the starting point guard, tasked with adjusting to college life, running the offense better than his predecessors and handling the pressure associated with someone of his caliber.

“It makes me want to enter school right now,” Trimble said.

The optimism at the banquet was palpable, longtime booster Stan Goldstein said, particularly because of how upbeat Turgeon seemed. Those close to the coach have noted his energy in recent weeks, freed from the stresses that came with so many offseason issues.

Only three weeks remain until the quintet of new recruits, ranked among the top 10 classes nationally by several Web sites, will report to campus. Individuals around the team have said spring workouts have been more focused since the announcements of the latest transfers, the current players motivated to quash any notion that the program is flailing.

“He’s got a couple more years to make it work,” said Barry Desroches, another prominent booster. “You hate to see kids go, but I think it could make it better. It’s a chance for him to really put his personality on the team. And I’m sure it’s going to be something he’s emphasized more than he has in the past.”

For a team that preached its closeness off the court, the Terps never quite developed chemistry on the court last season. The offense devolved into hero ball, players trying to win games individually. It got so bad that at Virginia last season, Turgeon installed a three-man lateral weave near midcourt that served no purpose other than to stop his players from shooting too fast.

Few coaches survive two wholesale roster changes in three seasons, but Turgeon’s contract, which expires after the 2018-19 season and includes a hefty buyout clause that would pay his full salary for each year remaining on the deal, has bought him extra time. Anderson, the athletic director, recently said: “I totally support Mark. We’re excited about going into the Big Ten. Our thing is, going into the Big Ten we’re going to be competitive. . . . We have a great team coming back and we have great recruits coming.”

Turgeon also knows something must change, and the tweets by his players sent after Allen’s transfer sent a clear, united message.

“I just want kids who are going to be committed to the program, even when things aren’t going exactly the way you want them to go,” Turgeon said recently. “There’s a lot of pride and tradition at Maryland, and we’ve got to be more committed to that. That’s what I want to change.”

There are still new checkpoints ahead. Turgeon needs to replace Spinelli.

He hopes to sign a point guard transfer from another college to help Trimble. Five freshmen need to be integrated onto the team. But in many ways the Terps find themselves back inside the starting gates, disappointment at their heels, hope brought by new faces, another chance to buck the trend and make this year the one that is different.

“I think what helps is winning,” Turgeon said. “We haven’t done that yet. When you do that, there’s more of a commitment instead of trying to chase it somewhere else.”

A previous version of this story incorrectly said the Terrapins’ 25 wins in 2012-13 were more than any Maryland team since the 2002 national champions. The 2006-07 Terps also won 25 games.

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