Mark Turgeon stood in a hallway outside the Maryland locker room at Comcast Center late Saturday afternoon with the familiar wry smile on his face. It had been a good afternoon for his basketball team, arguably as good a day as Maryland has had during this often-frustrating season.
The Terrapins had easily beaten Florida State, 83-71, in a game that wasn’t really that close. They led by 20 points in the second half against a team they had lost to by 24 points four weeks ago in Tallahassee. With road games coming up this week at No. 20 Virginia and No. 11 Duke and top-ranked Syracuse coming to town in two weeks, Maryland had to win Saturday to keep its NCAA tournament hopes on life support.
They smacked Florida State thanks in large part to Seth Allen, who had a career day with 32 points. But Maryland also defended well throughout the game, undoubtedly helped by the absence of Ian Miller, who scored 20 points the last time FSU played Maryland and is probably the Seminoles’ best ballhandler.
No matter. Maryland had won a game it had to win. And so, Turgeon was asked, what did his team need to do to get to the next level, something it hasn’t been able to do so far this winter?
“You mean this year?” Turgeon asked.
That was a telling answer — or question. If nothing else, Turgeon is a realist, and he knows his team probably has to win the one game in which it will be favored over the next two weeks — at home against Wake Forest on Feb. 18 — and beat at least two of the three ranked teams it will face during that stretch to have any chance to play serious March basketball.
When Turgeon was told the question was about this season, not the future, he smiled.
“Defend and rebound,” he said. “We’re getting better but we need to do it more consistently against the good teams. You look at the teams at the top of our league: Duke outscores you but Syracuse, Virginia and Pittsburgh really play defense. That’s what we’re going to have to do better.”
Frequently, teams get their offense started with their defense. This Maryland team seems to be the opposite. When the Terrapins make shots — 52 percent on Saturday — they seem to guard with more enthusiasm. That can be a dangerous way to play because no one shoots the ball well every night. But that’s what this Maryland team has been to date and Turgeon knows that. He thought before the season that he had a team that would make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010. Then Allen broke his foot and missed the first six weeks, and it has been a slow rebuild since then.
Home losses to Boston University and Oregon State are killers on a team’s potential NCAA tournament résumé, and the only way to take some of the sting out of losses like that is with eye-catching victories. At Virginia, at Duke or at home against Syracuse would fill that bill, but Maryland (14-10, 6-5) will have to be better than it has been in its first 24 games to win any of those games.
“I never should have scheduled Oregon State,” Turgeon said, shaking his head. “The president comes [Obama’s brother-in-law, Craig Robinson, coaches the Beavers] and their kids played out of their minds. They were throwing in shots from over their shoulders.
“Did I think we’d have more wins right now? Yes. But the good news is we’ve played better lately. Last five games have been good. We’re sharing the ball better, guarding better. Everything’s better.”
The players have talked in recent weeks about Turgeon being tougher in practice, getting on them more often. “All talk,” Turgeon said. “It hasn’t been any one thing.”
Perhaps a come-to-Jesus meeting? “Oh we’ve had lots of those,” he said.
Turgeon is in his third season and no one — least of all Turgeon — would say it’s been a smooth ride. As good as Allen was Saturday, he’s not a pure point guard the way Pe’Shon Howard, who transferred to Southern California after last season, was when he was healthy. Turgeon and Terrell Stoglin didn’t get along from the outset, but there’s no doubt the guard — who would be a senior had he stayed at Maryland instead of departing after Turgeon’s first season — could score.
In part because of attrition, Turgeon has brought in a number of transfers, most notably Dez Wells who is, without question, Maryland’s best player. That has made the Terrapins a team that appears to be constantly in transition. Alex Len left after two years for the NBA, but, as Turgeon says, he knew that was going to happen.
It isn’t as if this Maryland team is bad; it just isn’t as good, at least so far, as anyone in College Park wanted it to be or expected it to be. The fans are clearly in wait-and-see mode. Even as the Terrapins were playing arguably their best game of the season Saturday, Comcast Center felt like a library most of the day.
“I think that’s a product of record,” Turgeon said. “When we really get it going again, we’ll have sellouts for every game and it will be loud for every game.”
He paused. “It would be nice to see the students come out and support the guys a little more.”
Saturday’s announced attendance was 14,783, and many of the empty seats were in the student section. “I don’t want anyone to misunderstand,” Turgeon added. “I think that’s a good number and I’m not bothered by our crowd not being more into it right now. We have to give them more reason to be turned on.”
The building will be packed and rocking when Syracuse comes to town two weeks from Monday (it’s already a sellout). That’s not the challenge though; the challenge is getting the place back to being packed and rocking for games like this one. Once, that was the case every night when Gary Williams was in the midst of taking Maryland to 11 straight NCAA tournaments, a run that included two Final Four trips and a national championship.
During this long winter, Turgeon has called on his mentors Larry Brown and Roy Williams for advice and encouragement. He has not yet called Gary Williams.
“I should call him,” Turgeon said Saturday. “A lot of people have told me I should call him. I haven’t wanted to bother him, but I should call him. I should get him out here to practice, to talk to the team.”
Gary Williams was the most successful coach in Maryland basketball history — that’s why the Comcast Center court is named for him. His advice would be pithy: “Beat Duke.”
Throwing in Virginia or Syracuse wouldn’t be a bad idea, either.
For more by John Feinstein, go to washingtonpost.com/feinstein.