The smiles had returned to the Maryland men’s basketball team by Monday afternoon, the result of rest and a significant mental cleanse. Every bit of sting felt from Saturday’s loss at Duke, the Terrapins claimed, was gone, replaced by the same positivity that has persisted throughout the season, no matter if their record would suggest otherwise.
“Losing’s no fun,” Coach Mark Turgeon said. “And it’s been a tough year. We didn’t expect this. We’re 14-12. We expected to be at least 20-6 at this point. But we’re not. We are what we are. But we get to play Wake Forest tomorrow night, which is great. We didn’t have to sit on this for long.”
On paper, it isn’t pretty, and that is ultimately how this team will be judged once the offseason dawns. Maryland has lost three of four, though two were to ranked teams on the road. Its NCAA tournament hopes have long since disappeared into the ether, salvageable only perhaps by an undefeated stretch over the regular season’s final five games and a deep run into the ACC tournament. So how can Turgeon, a third-year coach who has already drawn the ire of so many fans, be so optimistic about what lies ahead?
Simple. His team has fewer problems than before.
“It’s just one day at a time, which is cliche to you guys, I understand,” Turgeon said. “But we started approaching it that way when we were struggling. We have lost three out of four but I feel we’ve gotten a lot better, a lot tougher. We’ve gained confidence, but there is so much we still need to work on.
“But when you start to play better, it’s easier to narrow it down. When you’re not playing on, you’ve got so much to work on, it’s overwhelming. Now they can see it. So you break it down a little easier and hopefully improve on what our weaknesses are and hopefully become a better team.”
The Terps have undeniably played better since losing on Jan. 25 to Pittsburgh at home, though it hasn’t manifested in wins. They executed well against Miami, rolled at Virginia Tech, lost a hard-fought game at Florida State, drubbed Florida State at home, lost to the Cavaliers at John Paul Jones Arena and were a few centimeters away from toppling the Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium. In this manner, the players want to extract a moral victory from Saturday, even if time is running out for that sort of outlook.
“It just builds our confidence, to know we can play with anybody,” forward Jake Layman said. “We just have to keep playing with that confidence and good things will happen.”
Yet it hasn’t happened yet. Five games remain until the ACC tournament. Four are at home and two are against nationally ranked opponents. The lone road game is at Clemson, itself a fringe NCAA tournament team and a stingy group at home.
Twice during his media session on Monday, Turgeon almost apologized to reporters for using cliches to describe his team’s view, which given how the season has unfolded thus far features heavy tunnel vision to avoid disappointment. But at this juncture, what more can the Terps do but lurch forward and try to use the Duke loss as a springboard?
There were indeed positives to take from the final regular season ACC meeting with their longtime rivals. Guard Dez Wells, after early foul trouble, was unstoppable on the fast break during the second half. Layman was more aggressive and strong in traffic. Freshman center Damonte Dodd was strong protecting the rim, not the least bit intimidated on the national stage. And Duke hadn’t experienced a worse offensive 20 minutes this season than after halftime against Maryland.
“We’ve got great opportunities ahead of us,” Turegon said. “Right now, and you guys get tired of it, it’s really all about Wake Forest. We did everything we could just to prepare us for Wake Forest tomorrow. When you’re dealing with kids, young men, you make it real simple, they can dial into that. It’s still all right in front of us. We know that.”
>> The ACC called the Terps to apologize for the held ball error that led to Duke receiving possession for a second straight time, Turgeon said. During the game, he was “95 percent sure it was our ball,” but struggled to attract the attention of the officials. He verified the mistake while watching film on the plane flight home, but shrugged it off when asked Monday.
“It’s part of the game,” Turgeon said. “There were a lot of calls and things you could say went against us in that game. You just move on. We’ve moved on. We’re onto Wake Forest.”