CORAL GABLES, Fla. — It’s easy to grasp just how much excitement and potential swirled around College Park one week ago. The Maryland basketball team had won 13 straight, including a dominating ACC opener against Virginia Tech at home, carried into a new era on the backs of four freshmen, two transfers, a stable of solid veterans and one high-prized future lottery pick soaring up the draft boards.
Fans felt it. The players had rolled through the nonconference schedule, and the overarching question was when – not whether – the Terrapins would crack the top 25.
Coach Mark Turgeon did his best to temper expectations, perhaps attempting to protect his team from the external energy, trying to tone down the anticipation with calls of “We’ve got a long way to go” and “We can be good, but we’re not there yet.” It seemed vintage Turgeon, honest and blunt, with an eye toward the future that seemed to burn brighter with each day.
Turgeon shook off the idea of the Florida State loss being a “wake-up call.” It’s not as simple as consciously overcoming a sleepy performance by waking up. He still seems to be protecting his young team; instead of playing down heightened expectations, though, he praised the effort Sunday after a game in which Maryland set season ows for points, field goal percentage and free throw percentage while sprinkling in reprimands.
“We really competed,” Turgeon said after the loss at Miami. “That’s what I like. We’re going to be all right. I don’t know if we’ll win. But we’ll be all right. We’ve got a lot of young kids. The ones helping us the most are sophomores and freshmen. That’s a pretty good feeling.”
The bad feelings persist in the now, pervasive throughout a 54-47 loss to the Hurricanes. But that’s the maddening nature of expectations, when hype often precedes reality. The Terps are 1-2 in the ACC, undone by three straight miserable halves , struggling to reclaim a lost identity. By no means should the panic button be pressed. It’s January, just three games into conference play, with plenty of remaining room for improvement and opportunities.
“We’re a whole new basketball team, our veterans are our sophomores, so we’ll have to go through some stuff,” Turgeon said. “It’s not fun. And we’re going through it. Hopefully we can go through it and win a few games over the next few weeks. A lot of our problem is, okay, we’re playing some really good teams now and we’re going through it for the first time. Hopefully by playing good teams, it’ll help our habits get better quicker.”
Those habits include poor offensive decision-making, which relegated Maryland to half-court sets, unable to run in transition for fear of compounding turnovers. The Terrapins also shot poorly from the field for the second straight game, unable to compensate for their systematic struggles with a hot hand.
“We came here to win this game. Just didn’t happen,” Alex Len said. “Expectations are really high. Coach wants us to be great. We want to win every game. We just have to continue to work hard. I think we’re really good on defense, but we have to continue to work on our execution. It needs to get better. We need to screen better, make smart decisions, make easier plays. We had trouble against not really good teams. Now we play teams like Miami and Florida State and it shows.”
Maryland won’t likely return to the drawing board, but tweaks may be in order, especially with North Carolina State arriving at Comcast Center on Wednesday and trips to North Carolina, Duke and Florida State looming this month. Perhaps they’ll relish assuming a more underdog role, something that hasn’t truly happened since the season-opener against Kentucky, developing an us-against-the-world mentality when faced with adversity.
During his Friday news conference, Turgeon called Maryland “puppies,” contrasted with the veteran, big-dog nature of Miami. He was spot-on, and it wasn’t just the four freshmen. Nick Faust shot 1 for 8 from the field, but snatched seven defensive rebounds. Pe’Shon Howard hasn’t made a field goal in ACC play. James Padgett similarly missed all three field goal attempts, while he, Len and Dez Wells combined to miss 10 of 18 free-throw attempts.
Losing to the Seminoles, many of the Terps said, was a “wake-up call” or “eye-opener,” a brutal introduction to the ACC’s physicality. So what does that make this loss to Miami? An exposure? A much-needed jolt? A second wake-up call?
“It’s not that,” Wells said. “We’re well aware of what we’re facing. We just have to approach every game with the mentality that, no matter what happens in this game, no matter what run the other team goes on, we’re going to withstand it and pull it out.
“As a leader, I have to figure out, put my eye and finger on what we’re lacking, and just bring that as a leader on the team. That’s what I have to do. Now we’ll step back, take a deep breath and really reflect on this game, see what we can do better.”