The Terps are trending, the experts are swooning and College Park is buzzing. Now can the players handle the great expectations?
One month before the college basketball season was scheduled to tip off, before a single shot was shot or pass was passed, the University of Maryland campus was dark and silent, the sun still an hour from surfacing. Most students were asleep, as the players started trickling into Xfinity Center. They woke each other up before 6 a.m., left their apartments and walked about 200 yards through a parking lot and under street lights to the empty basketball arena.
MARYLAND'S MARCH: About this series: The Maryland men's basketball team faces high expectations as one of the nation's top-ranked squads. Washington Post reporter Rick Maese goes behind the scenes this season to see what makes a high-level program tick and what it takes to fulfill potential.
Nine student managers for the men’s basketball team were already there, maneuvering hoops and turning on the clocks and scoreboard, setting up one of the first practices in this season of great expectations. Some players had their wrists and ankles taped and were on the court by 6:30, shooting free throws, when Nima Omidvar, the team’s buoyant director of basketball operations, burst through the tunnel.
“Good morning!” he shouted to no one in particular.
“Why you so happy?” Michal Cekovsky, the team’s 7-foot-1 Slovakian center, asked, the interrupted sleep still visible in his eyes.
“It’s a great day! You’re a Terp!” Omidvar reminded him.
The team’s head coach, Mark Turgeon, strolled on the court about 15 minutes later, his sense of urgency apparent in each step. The Terps had been practicing together for barely a week, their first game exactly one month away, and Turgeon feared he was behind schedule. He had defenses to install, concepts to teach, scenarios that needed to be accounted for.
The Terps were embarking on a season in which the expectations from the outside seemed to match those that Turgeon woke up with each morning. Maryland enters the season ranked No. 3 in the country in both the coaches’ and writers’ polls. ESPN’s power rankings put the Terps No. 1. The College Park campus has been buzzing for months, dreaming of a momentous March that might culminate in a Final Four appearance and national championship.
Guard Rasheed Sulaimon dunks the ball during warmups before the Southern New Hampshire exhibition game. The Terps won, 91-55.
In his fifth season here, Turgeon has assembled perhaps the most talented roster Maryland has ever seen. Analysts see no fewer than five possible NBA prospects, including four who could be drafted next spring.
College Basketball 2015:
Because he’s a detail-oriented pragmatist, Turgeon sees all of the obstacles standing in the way, and he spent the preseason prepping both his team and fan base for the realities of a long season: a daunting schedule, tough road games, the possibility of injuries, the challenges of adding new players. In today’s college game, every top-tier program experiences turnover, and every team works through growing pains in October and November with the hopes of peaking in March.
The NCAA allows Turgeon 30 preseason practices in which to cram everything in, and Turgeon had each day mapped out and scheduled down to the minute. Before the Terps’ first game against Mount St. Mary’s, Turgeon wanted every situation covered.
He has saved every practice plan he’s ever used, going back to his days as a 23-year-old junior varsity high school coach in Kansas, and in completing his agenda for this early October morning, he referenced a practice from exactly one year ago. His thought for the day was “toughness,” and he wanted to focus on three defensive looks.
The players all convened for a pre-practice stretch, shaking loose any lingering pre-dawn cobwebs.
Finally, after Turgeon had greeted every player and triple-checked his practice plan — the clock overhead read 6:59 — he clapped his hands and yelled, “Let’s go! Let’s get started!”
The spotlight finds them
Otherworldly talent begets otherworldly expectations, and Turgeon spent months urging his players to ignore outsider assessments. But Zack Bolno, the school’s veteran sports information director, now had to prep players to confront these expectations head-on. Before Turgeon, Bolno and players Jake Layman and Melo Trimble traveled to Chicago for Big Ten media days, Bolno drilled the players about what they would face from reporters. But in truth, Layman and Trimble had already faced the same questions for the past five months on campus, in classrooms and around town.
Coming off a 28-win season, the Terps saw their expectations rise exponentially in a whirlwind stretch last spring. First, on March 27, a blue-chip prospect from Wisconsin named Diamond Stone surprised many by deciding to play for Maryland. Four days later, Trimble, the Terps’ best scorer and most irreplaceable player, ended a brief flirtation with the NBA to return to College Park for his sophomore season. Layman followed suit on April 9, and then a little more than a month later, guard Rasheed Sulaimon announced his intention to transfer from Duke.
When the school staged its annual Maryland Madness in October, it marked the first chance for fans to finally see the team up close. About a thousand fans filled the volleyball pavilion, and another 100 or so lined up outside, all hungry for signatures and selfies. Seven months removed from playing in high school gyms, Stone sat alongside teammates at a long table, an 18-year-old with a Sharpie in his right hand.
“So glad to have you here,” an alum said.
“Thank you for coming to Maryland,” a father said, with his wide-eyed 7-year-old at his side.
“I’d just like to shake your hand,” an older fan said.
Stone’s mother, Cynthia, smiled as she watched from a few feet away. She finally stepped forward and leaned in to say hello.
“Not now, Mom,” Stone said, scribbling his name on a sneaker.
About 150 people were turned away, but the players still signed for more than an hour, fan after fan reminding them of how excited they were for the upcoming season and the promise it held.
“It’s a big deal around this community,” Sulaimon said. “It’s hard not to listen to it.”
“Coach tells us, ‘You got to just try to block all that out,’ ” junior Damonte Dodd said. “But it is different last year to this year. Last year coming in, you had no expectations.”
If the Terps had any illusions about how close they stood to any sort of championships or accolades, each day at practice without fail players were reminded how much further they had to go.
For newcomers, big adjustments
At one recent practice, Turgeon had the day’s plan tucked into the back of his track pants and was helping assistant coach Bino Ranson with the team’s post players.
“Motion shooting,” Turgeon instructed. “One dribble pitch, face screen.”
Near one wing was Stone, a 6-foot-11 five-star recruit who many analysts suspect will be NBA-bound after only one college season. He’s a big player with a big personality.
“Okay,” Stone said when it was his turn, “showtime.” A hard pass came buzzing his way. But Stone quickly lost control of the ball. Then he bumped into a teammate.
“My bad,” he offered, plodding to the back of the line.
Center Diamond Stone tosses a medicine ball against the wall while working out with the team.
Coaches loved Stone’s offensive gifts: He’s skilled with either hand, a consistent shooter from 15 feet out, a great passer with a natural feel for the game. But as with many uber-talented teenagers, Stone’s jump from high school to college had been as subtle as a slap to the face.
“He’s never had to practice hard,” Turgeon points out. “He’s always been the best player on the court.”
Maryland’s early practices were too much for Stone, the game too fast. At another practice, the team was running through its transition defense, and Stone failed to communicate with teammates. Turgeon whistled the play dead.
“Talk or get out of here, Diamond,” Turgeon said. “You’re killing me.”
Every player hears something similar at some point, but inevitably, freshmen hear it the most. One of the challenges of integrating new talent is establishing internal expectations. Returning players know the concepts and the effort required of them. As the season neared, players such as Stone and Sulaimon were still adjusting.
Sulaimon was booted from Duke last January and had to watch from a buddy’s couch in April as the Blue Devils won the national title without him. Bittersweet, he called it. People close to the Duke program said Sulaimon was ousted for a series of minor infractions — being late, failing to be accountable. When Duke released him, Turgeon touched base to see how Sulaimon and his family were holding up.
The two had first met when Turgeon was head coach at Texas A&M and Sulaimon had just completed his seventh-grade year in Houston. Turgeon was hosting an “elite junior” camp for about 15 young players in College Station, Tex., and quickly noticed the undersized Sulaimon’s energy and quickness.
“Then I look over at his mom and dad [and] they weren’t very tall, sister wasn’t very tall. But you could tell even then he was gonna be something,” Turgeon recalled.
Turgeon remained close with the player and his family, even as they settled on Duke and Sulaimon became a productive role player and later a steady starter.
Following his abbreviated junior campaign, Sulaimon decided to transfer to Maryland because of those relationships with Turgeon and Terps assistant Dustin Clark.
In College Park, coaches tried to anticipate how the late addition would impact the team. Turgeon held a series of one-on-one meetings. He wanted to feel out sophomores Jared Nickens and Dion Wiley because their playing time and roles would be most affected. He wanted to run it by team leaders such as Layman to gauge how the locker room would respond. But mostly, he wanted to make sure everyone was on board. They all signed off.
Sulaimon spent the summer at Duke, finishing his bachelor’s degree, and was the last member of this year’s squad to set foot on campus. He enrolled in Maryland’s MBA program and began a crash course in forging relationships and learning Turgeon’s system.
The players all live together in a handful of apartments, and they hang out together away from the gym. Sulaimon has a car, so he’s often driving teammates around College Park.
“We quickly developed relationships off the court,” Sulaimon said. “On the court, it’s an ongoing thing.”
At a recent practice — Turgeon’s thought for the day: being a great teammate — Sulaimon watched from the sideline as teammates ran through a drill. After the whistle blew, he called out to Nickens. “Hey man, you’ve got to be available,” he said.
They ran the play again, and Sulaimon kept coaching. “Be available, youngin’!” he called out. “Hands up, hands up — there you go!”
Practices run at a fast pace. The team uses a 24-second shot clock, so they’ll be fully prepared for when the actual games take place with a 30-second clock. Turgeon, 50, was an undersized, overachieving point guard at Kansas who always had to work harder and be smarter. Three decades later, he’s barely slowed, constantly teaching, reinforcing and reminding.
“Look at our length,” Turgeon said during one practice, spreading his arms wide and scanning his five defenders across half-court. “This is gonna be a [pain] for them. We’re not gonna do this a lot. But we might do it a couple times. You gotta bust your [tail] in this defense.”
Mark Turgeon, CEO
In his 17th year as a head coach, Turgeon always urges his players to focus on the things they can control, even as he and his staff try to control as many variables as possible. The basketball program operates much like a big business with Turgeon serving as chief executive. The assistants under him all have assignments, each responsible for scouting specific opponents, recruiting certain high schools players and overseeing a handful of current players. They chart grades, relationships, moods and submit a weekly report to Turgeon. The whole program is tied together with a smartphone app that syncs calendars, meetings and class schedules, allows for messaging and reminders and lets Turgeon know what’s going on with everyone at any given moment.
In his second year as the director of basketball operations, Omidvar is the troubleshooter. He puts out fires and anticipates sparks. “I need to get Coach to focus on just basketball,” he explains. So every aspect of the program is planned down to the smallest detail: which players room together, when their classes are scheduled, what they eat, when they work out.
Coach Mark Turgeon loosens his tie as his team gathers together in the locker room one last time after the exhibition game.
“There’s nothing done by accident,” Omidvar says. “There’s a reason behind everything.”
For Kyle Tarp, the team’s director of basketball performance, the new season actually began April 6, just 16 days after the Terps were ousted from the NCAA tournament. In the offseason, NCAA rules limit Turgeon to two hours per week of instruction time. Tarp gets them for six hours — even more if players come in for voluntary workouts — so the coaching staff leans on him heavily. Tarp was trying to instill toughness, encourage team chemistry and help identify leaders.
He remembered one early workout in which players were carrying 100-pound kettlebells down a hallway. A new player lost his grip and the weight dropped to the ground with a thud. Before Tarp could reach the player, seniors Layman and Robert Carter cut him off.
“They made him pick up the kettlebell, walk his butt back to the starting line and do it again,” Tarp said. “That’s the leadership we’re looking for.”
Less than two weeks before their season opener, the Terps gathered for one of their regular team workouts. Turgeon was in the hallway on a stairclimber, out of sight from his players, as the group went through their stretching routine and began a brisk half-hour session.
Long before analysts started projecting the Terps as a tournament favorite, Tarp met with Turgeon and each of the players to discuss individual goals and create customized plans. So he knew that Carter wanted to play more above the rim, that Turgeon wanted Layman and Cekovsky to add weight and for Stone and Wiley to shed some.
In a short time, he saw big results across the board. Carter, a transfer from Georgia Tech, has gotten both smaller and stronger. He’s lost nearly 20 pounds. His bench press rose from 265 to 300 pounds and squat from 275 to 385, while his body-fat percentage dropped from 18.5 percent to below 12. “Still not at my physical peak,” Carter says.
And Stone lost 20 pounds in just three months and will start his freshman season at 249 pounds. His body-fat percentage fell from 22 percent to 15.75. “Still big, but I’m cutting it down,” Stone said. Most importantly to Tarp, the entire staff has noticed Stone’s work habits improve dramatically.
As the team moved from one exercise to the next, Carter refused to let the room get silent. When he spotted Stone doing chin-ups, he walked over to watch. “Get up there, boy!” Carter yelled. “Get up there!”
Stone’s chin was shaking. “Come on,” Tarp said, “one more.”
When all the players were tired and sweating and feeling their muscles burn, it was time to hit the court for the afternoon practice.
But first, each clicked a small disc into place, either against his sternum or on the side of his rib cage. It’s the key ingredient in a biometric system designed by a company called Zephyr. The disc records a variety of measurements in real time, and during practice, Tarp watches them flash onto the laptop screen.
Tarp and his staff know exactly how hard a player is working before a play or drill is even whistled dead. The staff can use the numbers to make adjustments — usually pushing a player harder or pulling back — on a weekly or daily basis, but also in the course of a practice. Often Turgeon will walk over to Tarp and ask, “Kyle, where we at today?” Tarp and Turgeon will meet each Monday to develop a weekly gameplan, deciding how intense each practice should be and how hard to push the players.
“We’re fortunate,” Tarp said, “because we got in early. But it’s not just having the technology; it’s figuring out the secret sauce — what goes into it?”
By the end of October, Turgeon felt the team wasn’t quite where he wanted. Sulaimon had missed the entire summer, and Turgeon felt the chemistry with him in the mix was still a work in progress. Wiley hurt his knee during a practice, and the team’s worst fears were quickly confirmed: He underwent surgery on a torn meniscus and was lost for the season. Stone, meantime, had strung together a series of improved practices.
“He’s fun to coach. I wouldn’t have said that the first week, but he’s fun to coach now,” Turgeon said.
The team boarded a bus and drove to Pennsylvania for a private scrimmage against 11th-ranked Villanova, a humbling trip that reinforced just how far the Terps had to go. On Nov. 6, an exhibition game against Southern New Hampshire was the time to show fans what this team of great expectations actually looked like.
Before the game, Turgeon collected his group in the locker room and calmly laid out his three areas of emphasis: play hard defense, rebound and play inside-out. “It’s a real simple game plan,” he told them. “It’s about us getting better tonight.”
On the court, Maryland looked every bit like a team with a high ceiling — but one in no danger of bumping its head against it any time soon. There were turnovers and sloppy play at times, but the Terps dominated the boards, communicated with each other on the court and all of the new pieces — Stone, Sulaimon and Carter — fit in well. Maryland won, 91-55, and both players and coaches were in good spirits afterward.
“I thought we were really together today,” Turgeon told the players, all seated in front of their lockers. “I thought we were cheering for each other, had each other’s backs. That was great. The one thing that wasn’t great was what? Turnovers. But we got great players and we’ll fix that. Great night. I’m really proud of a lot of the things we did, and we got better.”
The fans left the arena, the buzz and expectations only building. Players left, eager to play games that counted, and coaches left, knowing there was plenty of film to watch and actual opponents to scout. A game against Georgetown was a week and a half away; top-ranked North Carolina loomed in early December. Every day, they’d all face the same expectations to which they were now accustomed.
Gathered together in the center of the locker room, they ended the night like they end every practice. Turgeon loosened his tie. “Okay, like you mean it,” someone shouted. “1-2-3.”
“We will!” they all yelled together.
The Terps changed out of their uniforms and walked out into the dark parking lot, ready to start the biggest season any of them had ever known.
Note: About this series: The Maryland men's basketball team faces high expectations as one of the nation's top-ranked squads. Washington Post reporter Rick Maese goes behind the scenes this season to see what makes a high-level program tick and what it takes to fulfill potential.