Mark Turgeon sat in a black cushioned courtside seat on a raised platform opposite the scorer’s table, checking out the sightline of the Comcast Center floor. Hours before his Maryland men’s basketball team played Indiana University of Pennsylvania in an exhibition last Friday, Turgeon was parked in the stands, concerning himself with the platform’s levels. He wanted every paying fan to receive an unobstructed view of the show.
Like the elevated stadium seating, Maryland’s expectations are heightened in Turgeon’s second season. A highly regarded recruiting class and a solid group of returning players are aiming to return the Terrapins to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010. After finishing just two games above .500 in Turgeon’s inaugural season in College Park, Maryland has sold 9,253 season tickets, surpassing last season’s total of 9,009, and the school expects that number to rise once the season begins Friday night against defending national champion Kentucky in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Perhaps the most auspicious sign came Wednesday morning, when the NCAA granted an eligibility waiver to Xavier transfer Dez Wells, last season’s Atlantic 10 rookie of the year.
“We buy into what Mark Turgeon’s saying, we buy into his system and that the program will really head into the right direction,” said freshman Charles Mitchell, one-fourth of Turgeon’s heralded class of 2012. “I feel like everyone’s buying into his system and really willing to work hard for him, to show that we want to take Maryland basketball to the next level.”
“We’re definitely feeling it, but we’re not focused on everybody else,” freshman guard Seth Allen said. “We’re just focused on our game and trying to get better every day. It’s definitely headed in a good direction. We feel like we can go far.”
Such aspirations seemed almost unthinkable at times last season, Turgeon’s first since migrating from Texas A&M. He accepted the job without knowing the Terrapins’ roster, so when Turgeon walked into the first team meeting, he wondered: “Is this it? Is this our whole team?” But Turgeon kept telling himself to consider the long term.
“Second day on the job, the day before the press conference, I was wondering what I was thinking,” said Turgeon, his voice rising above the clatter of bouncing basketballs in the background on the court named for Gary Williams, his predecessor. “But I kept telling myself, ‘This is in the long run, might be a tough first year, in the long run this will be a great situation for me.’ I wasn’t looking at it as a one-year deal. I was looking at it as a 10-, 15-year investment of my time.”
At each of his previous stops, he rebuilt programs from the ground up. At Wichita State, Turgeon thought he would be fired in his third season. But the Shockers went to the National Invitation Tournament in 2002-03, beginning a four-year postseason run. In 2008-09, his second season at Texas A&M, the Aggies had begun 3-7 when the lease ran out on his school-paid car. Turgeon asked to re-up with the same vehicle, considering it superstition. The athletics department declined.
“I’m thinking they’re going to fire me at the end of the year,” Turgeon said. “I got [ticked] off, we went to the round of 32 in the NCAA tournament. They called me back at the end of the season and said, ‘So what color of the car do you want?’ ”
Immediately after the Terrapins suffered 63-61 loss at Georgia Tech in late February, Turgeon went recruiting. He traveled from Atlanta to nearby Wheeler High School, a 30-minute drive up Interstate 75, and watched Mitchell play.
Mitchell’s commitment in March sparked an offseason influx of talent. Evan Smotrycz and Logan Aronhalt transferred into the program from Michigan and Albany, respectively, and Aronhalt will be eligible to play this season (Smotrycz must wait a year). Wells announced he was coming to College Park in early September. Couple that with a recruiting class already stocked with guard Allen, swingman Jake Layman and center Shaquille Cleare, and it’s easy to discover the genesis of such buzz.
“If it affects them at all, it affects them in a positive way,” Turgeon said. “That’s why they came here, to create a buzz. I don’t know if there is one. I’m not out there in the streets. I don’t read anything. But people tell me there is a bit of a buzz. People love basketball here. They’re just looking for something to be excited about. The last two seasons haven’t gone the way we would have liked at Maryland, so I do think they’re excited. I think our guys can handle it, and they’re excited about it, too.”