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Mark Turgeon on playing North Carolina: ‘We were built for games like this’

(Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon said earlier this week that the only difficult part, on a personal level, of Tuesday night’s showdown at North Carolina will be facing his longtime friend and mentor Roy Williams. The North Carolina coach gave Turgeon one of his first opportunities in coaching. Just days after Williams had taken over for Larry Brown at Kansas in 1989, he hired Turgeon as an assistant and thus helped launched a coaching path that will take its next turn in Chapel Hill.

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Turgeon will be forced to cast aside his personal affection for Williams as No. 2 Maryland arrives at the first true road test of the season, meeting a Tar Heels team that opened the season ranked No. 1 in the country. While ninth-ranked North Carolina dropped in the polls after a stunning loss to Northern Iowa in November, it enters Tuesday night’s game as a seven-point favorite over the Terrapins, who have dodged several close calls against unranked teams to stay unbeaten during the first two weeks of the season. While Turgeon didn’t address the point spread when he addressed the media on Monday, he expressed confidence in how his team will match up against North Carolina.

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“We were built for games like this,” Turgeon said. “It should allow us to play our big lineup for 40 minutes, if we stay out of foul trouble. Because I know Carolina wants to play that way too. That’s a good matchup for us.”

Maryland’s lineups average 79 feet in cumulative height, according to KenPom.com, which ranks third nationally. That kind of length has afforded Turgeon a luxury he didn’t have last season, when Jake Layman was forced to play the stretch-four and the team’s best post scorer was shooting guard Dez Wells. Although Turgeon has elected to play small ball at times, he’s primarily kept  Layman at his natural position of small forward alongside power forward Robert Carter Jr., the former Georgia Tech transfer who had 18 points and 20 rebounds in two career games against North Carolina before transferring to Maryland in 2014.

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While Carter has continued to blossom – he’s averaged 14.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and two blocks in his last three games – Turgeon is still developing his center rotation with freshman Diamond Stone, sophomore Michal Cekovsky and junior Damonte Dodd. While Cekovsky is more comfortable coming off the bench at this point in his career, Dodd made a case to earn more minutes while in Cancun, where he gave the team an energy infusion with a career-high 13 points and three blocks in a win over Illinois State. He fouled out against Rhode Island the following night and played a quiet 20 minutes against Cleveland State, finishing with four points and three assists while helping clog the lane as Maryland pulled away in the second half.

Stone had a career-high 15 points on 6-of-10 shooting in that win, but he is enduring growing pains on defense. He played just 10 minutes after picking up two fouls against Illinois State, then fouled out against Rhode Island. He was pulled after picking up an early foul against Cleveland State, a strategy that Turgeon plans on using as the season progresses. Stone has a tendency to get down on himself after picking up his first foul, Turgeon has noticed, so by keeping him on short leash he can help the freshman refocus on the bench in order to have more of an impact later in games.

“I thought he played better” against Cleveland State, Turgeon said of Stone. “We’ll continue to take Diamond out after his first foul, just to let him get his mind straight. I’ll imagine our post players will get used to how the game is being called, so it’s all part of the process.”

Turgeon has pinpointed two areas of concern on defense: cheap over-the-back fouls and illegal screens. Turgeon said on Monday that while the NCAA rule changes have largely not affected his team, his front court is adjusting to the new rules regarding stationary screens and using an arm bar in post defense.

Maryland has faced a string of guard-oriented lineups that have forced its big men to chase on the perimeter, but Turgeon believes his team will be able to play a more conventional style against a loaded Tar Heels front court that includes North Carolina’s junior center Kennedy Meeks (14.3 ppg, 7.5 rpg) and senior forward Brice Johnson (13 ppg, 10.3 rpg).

“I like playing great teams, and North Carolina is a great team with a great coach, so it should be fun,” Turgeon said. “It’s been a highly anticipated game on the schedule since it came out.”

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