That would be straight into the teeth of their ACC schedule, a four-game stretch against some of the league’s best beginning with Tuesday night’s final conference game at North Carolina (14-7, 4-4 ACC), playing their best basketball of the season. Along the way, the Terps (13-9, 5-4 ACC) have matured, and their shells have hardened. Criticism, barked by a coach from the sideline or in the film room, no longer elicits sad stares or sulky body language.
Of course, the happiness has coincided with consecutive victories over Miami and Virginia Tech, teams with three combined wins in league play. Road games against the Tar Heels, Virginia and Duke over the next 12 days will test that resolve. “An unbelievable opportunity,” sophomore point guard Seth Allen called it.
But the Terps needed a starting point. They needed the challenge of studying different plans during practice and then successfully implementing those schemes into games, such as what happened vs. Miami’s matchup zone defense and Virginia Tech’s man-to-man. They needed Dez Wells to sink a game-winning three to beat the Hurricanes. They needed to respond to Turgeon’s criticism by ramping up the focus, not by crumbling.
“It was surprising because we responded positively,” Allen said. “We didn’t break down like we would have, like when we were younger.”
The progress has taken months, but at this critical juncture the Terps think they have arrived. Over the past three games, Wells has averaged 19.7 points and made 70 percent of his shots. Allen appears close to full strength, the conditioning problems caused by his once-broken left foot all but gone, and his presence has brought a measured calm to the offense.
But Maryland dug itself such a deep hole through the season’s first three months that beating Virginia Tech by 20 points was cause for joy. Turgeon felt surprised at how well the Terps adapted to three straight different game plans, but nearly 20 games had elapsed before he reached that point.
“Everybody’s different,” Turgeon said. “Some get it quicker than others. Some have a long ways to go. One thing you realize as a coach is results don’t happen overnight. But you start to see progress in practice, usually that carries into the game.”
The Tar Heels can empathize. Considered an ACC contender during the preseason, they lost ugly games early to Belmont, UAB and Texas, and that was before opening conference play at 0-3. But they have won three straight and sit a half-game behind Maryland for sixth in the league. They are still talented, still running the transition-heavy scheme Coach Roy Williams loves.
It was difficult for Maryland to simulate North Carolina’s pace, which ranks among the top 20 teams nationally, but on Monday afternoon its scout team struggled to even begin offensive sets. The Terps were so swarming on defense, so quick to jump passing lanes and so furious in their ball pressure that the walk-ons mimicking the Tar Heels had little room to breathe.
“It was probably frustrating for Coach Turgeon,” Allen said, and this time he meant that in a good way.