In College Park today, there are two ways to look at this uneven Maryland men’s basketball season: Glass half-empty, the Terrapins have an NBA lottery pick at center and some nice young pieces that, after starting an admittedly inflated 14-1, still should have been better than an outside-the-bubble team. Glass half-full, they’ve already managed 20 wins and remain on the periphery of the NCAA tournament just two years after Mark Turgeon inherited a fairly bare cupboard.
Either way, I feel for Turge.
Yes, he has had consecutive top-25 recruiting classes and currently has a better winning percentage in his first two seasons than Lefty Driesell and Gary Williams did in theirs. But for all the work Turgeon has put into cutting and pasting a decent roster together and somehow siphoning 17 wins out of last season’s leftovers, this maddening Maryland team is thus far a work in progress.
As North Carolina comes to Comcast Center on Wednesday night for the Terps’ final home game, Turgeon is still waiting for all the promising parts to consistently add up to a genuine whole.
“Sometimes you’re really pleased: Guys are getting better, working hard,” Turgeon said Tuesday afternoon before practice. “I think what the problem has been — and a lot of young teams do this — is just the inconsistencies. One night Seth Allen can give us 20, and the next night, he can give us two.
“But, you know there are good pieces. They’re young pieces, but they’ll get better. You try to push the right buttons and continue to coach them.”
Leading up to Maryland’s signature victory against Duke, Turgeon had to tell Alex Len that Mason Plumlee had treated him like a little brother earlier in the season before the projected first-round NBA draft pick played like a dominant center against Plumlee. Len has become tougher and a much more skillful player from a year ago, but on certain possessions he is still softer than Maryland’s nonconference schedule.
Nick Faust can be eye candy off the dribble one night and completely forget to see a teammate under the basket for an easy layup the next. Turgeon will tell you it’s unfair that Faust, a sophomore, has had to be relied upon like a senior. Still, the kid’s basketball IQ disappears at the most inopportune times.
The evil-twin theme continues on down a roster that has been forced to start underclassmen in almost 80 percent of its games.
The real infuriating part is you can tell Turgeon likes this team. Terrell Stoglin, the departed star from last year’s team, was a scorer with remarkable range. But he always saw himself as the No. 1through No. 5 option on offense; he was never going to be a true Turgeon player, a real teammate.
Many of these Terps are Turge’s kind of guys; they just haven’t shown up routinely enough to fulfill their potential.
“I do like ’em,” Turgeon said. “But what we don’t have is senior leadership that’s won at a high level, or even junior leadership that’s won at a high level. . . . We don’t have the upperclassmen that have won to teach our guys how to win at a high level. We’re winning, sure — 20-9 [overall], 8-8 [ACC] — it’s been a really good year in that way. But we want more.”
There is undeniably growth, evidenced by a rugged road win over the weekend at Wake Forest.
“We overcome foul trouble, Chris Paul Day, that was really a huge step,” Turgeon said. “We’re starting to grow up.
“But it is maddening at times. That’s young teams. No senior on our team has started and played in NCAA tournament games. I just keep trying to push the right buttons.”
So he keeps trying multiple substitutions and rotations — anything, really, to get Maryland kick-started to stay and compile a genuine tournament résumé.
Because every school plays more games to pay bills, 20-plus wins means almost nothing in college basketball anymore; 25 of last year’s 32 NIT teams had 20 or more wins, including four Pacific-12 teams and Seton Hall from the Big East. Even Maryland’s “good” nonconference loss — to Kentucky in the season opener — isn’t looking so good after the defending national champions morphed into an unranked squad.
In the good, old days of Gary Williams, the Terrapins would find their way back from the brink, improbably win a couple of ACC tournament games and miraculously secure a bid to the NCAAs. (It usually helped if Gary’s job status was up for discussion — that was all the motivation Maryland needed.)
But with North Carolina on Wednesday and a healthy and hungry Virginia in Charlottesville on Sunday to finish the regular season, it’s almost an impossible task for pretty good team that can’t sustain great for more than a day or two.
“All you can do is get on guys and say, ‘This isn’t winning basketball,’ but they don’t know,” Turgeon said. “So that’s really been it. With that said, the Duke win was an incredible win for us. A lot of things I’m really, really proud of this season. And there’s a lot of basketball left.”
“Probably the thing for me that’s tough is when you’re a coach at this level you’re probably a pretty good competitor. And the way we like to compete is to get the most out of our team. And so, I just keep trying to push the right buttons.”
Mark Turgeon pauses for a moment and reminds you again that the season isn't over. “Look, it’s a big week. It will be good for us to see how far we really have come these next two games.”
For previous columns by Mike Wise, go to washingtonpost.com/wise.