“We haven’t conquered the world or anything like that, but we’re playing better, which is a good feeling,” Coach Mark Turgeon said Saturday afternoon after Maryland defeated Georgia Tech, 77-61, at Comcast Center to move to 2-0 in the newly loaded Atlantic Coast Conference.
Georgia Tech isn’t a signature win. But the way Maryland came out — scoring 12 of the game’s first 14 points, going up 14 at halftime — summoned the possibilities Turgeon saw before the season. This was before Allen went out with a broken left foot that left the Terps without a proven scorer, their floor leader, their catalyst on a roster that has no margin for injury, let alone any more bad losses.
You can’t sugarcoat this: the 8-5 nonconference start did not make the locals happy. It’s one thing to lose to a very good George Washington team that already looks tournament-worthy; dropping games to Boston University and Oregon State at home
? Not so much. That put the Terps behind in the bracketology game, far enough that they now have to make up real ground.
This is how Selection Sunday logic works: a bad loss has to be canceled out by a quality win. Maryland is going to have to do that by winning a couple of ACC games it probably on paper shouldn’t win. If the Terrapins can’t get Syracuse in College Park, they darn near have to be perfect the rest of the way at home.
“You can put that on me,” Turgeon said, acknowledging that the thin group he went with this season didn’t leave much room for a key player like Allen to miss significant time.
When a kid like that is not out there, you have players like Dez Wells and Nick Faust trying to use the other team as traffic cones on the way to the rim or before firing a step-back jumper. Those shots look nice when they fall, but when they don’t they kill ball movement and half-court choreography.
That’s why Maryland’s 16-to-6 assist-to-turnover ratio against the Yellow Jackets pleased Turgeon, who added, “It’s a fight every day to get guys to pass the ball.”
When it happens like it did Saturday, though, that’s a team worth watching — a team that has an outside shot to become the first, post-Gary NCAA tournament team.
“It’s one game, but you look at our minutes,” the coach began, reeling off nine players who played at least 15 minutes. “That’s a pretty deep basketball team right there. It’s what we envisioned. Depth, confidence, Seth Allen being a guy to break down the defense . . .”
There is a sense Turgeon escapes harsher criticism because he plays nice with media and boosters. But the reason I’m rooting hard for him is simple: He has to carry the banner for Maryland’s big-time athletics the next couple of years. He is not only responsible for making Maryland hoops as mad as it was during the zenith of the Gary Williams years; he’s by extension also responsible for the job of Kevin Anderson, the athletic director and the man who hired Turgeon and football Coach Randy Edsall.
Football is going to face brutal challenges in competition as Maryland enters the no-turning-back world of the Big Ten in the next school year. But men’s basketball, always the lifeblood in College Park, is supposed to ease the transition. So while Anderson can maybe survive blowouts to Edsall’s program the first year or so, he needs his hoops hire to knock off Michigan State or Ohio State at home occasionally and ensure the Terrapins become a perennial tournament team again.
Or else, beyond the TV millions, the whole decision to move up in competition caves in on everyone like a house of cards.
I’m betting on Turgeon to pull it off. He’s under contract till 2019 and has no interest in going anywhere. Despite the fact that he really came here to coach in the ACC, he’s embraced the Big Ten reality like everyone else.
He’s also got Seth Allen for a couple more years after this season. It would be disappointing if his team didn’t get to the tournament in Turgeon’s third season. But it doesn’t make or break the kind of long-term impact he can have.
As everyone in College Park knows, when Maryland men’s hoops is rolling like Saturday at Comcast Center, it feels like all of campus is rolling.
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.