Mark Turgeon’s Midwestern honesty has been one of the hallmarks of his tenure as the Maryland men’s basketball coach, as he’s often brutally frank about his team’s struggles. And on Tuesday night, as he swapped places inside the Smith Center media room with his mentor, North Carolina Coach Roy Williams, whom Turgeon had just lost to for the seventh straight time over the past three seasons, he had plenty negatives to ponder and the chances for reproach were many.
The Terps had abandoned their new-found offensive progress and patience in favor of quick shots, as early as their first possession. They had struggled with North Carolina’s back-court pressure and had their passes batted like piñatas. Set plays, scripted during timeouts, were immediately bungled on the court, like the lob pass that slammed off the backbaord. On one possession, Turgeon and guard Dez Wells spent several seconds yelling at forward Charles Mitchell to move away so Wells could isolate his defender, but amid the rising din Mitchell kept trying to set a screen.
But Turgeon, when he sat behind the microphone and again began a news conference with a deep exhale, quickly glossed over all that and dovetailed straight for the positives.
“I’m probably going to state the obvious,” he began. “We had a bad start and we couldn’t afford a bad start and we had one. They made, it seemed, like every shot at the beginning. They got good looks, but after that I thought we really tried hard. I thought we competed. I thought we did a lot of things well.”
Indeed, Maryland played North Carolina to a tie after halftime, and the Terrapins will try to re-recreate that second-half performance in tough upcoming games against Florida State, Virginia and Duke over the next 10 days. After Turgeon explained away the 75-63 loss, his team’s fifth in the past eight games, Mitchell and fellow forward Evan Smotrycz both exuded a similar form of resolve.
“I felt like in the second half we played really well,” Smotrycz said. “We executed, shot the ball decent. It was just that stretch at the end of the first half that kind of killed us.”
Perhaps they were simply rehashing the talking points uttered in the locker room, where Turgeon has managed to balance biting commentary and hope, or perhaps they were each speaking from the heart. Was it spin or genuine sentiment? Regardless, the familiar words like “disappointing” and “frustrated” – words that would be checked off on a nightly basis if one were to play Maryland Basketball Bingo – had at least temporarily left their vocabularies.
“It was the first time on the road against a good opponent in a hostile environment that we really competed till the end,” Turgeon said. “We’re getting better. I know you’re never happy with a loss, but we’ve come a long ways in the last two-and-a-half weeks. A pretty talented team we played against tonight.”
Of course, the Terps have felt this before, trying to extract bright spots from losses, and little about how the season has unfolded so far suggests they are capable of rising above where they currently stand – at .500 in ACC play, three games above .500 overall, tied for seventh in the ACC standings, exactly where they were picked in the preseason media poll.
Yet the Terrapins still have a number of chances to change their season for the better. Five of their eight remaining opponents rank in the RPI top 50, including Florida State at home on Saturday. Syracuse, unbeaten and ranked No. 1, and No. 20 Virginia both have Comcast Center trips ahead of them. The field of teams on the NCAA tournament bubble is weak, and Maryland can improve its standing with only a few upsets.
But until the Terps prove they can hang with high-caliber opponents, their postgame interviews will feature the same disconnect: positive talk, preceded by negative results.