Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon plans to briefly educate his team on the history of Madison Square Garden ahead of Tuesday night’s game against Connecticut, but he was in no rush to do so before the team’s practice Monday. If the past seven days have proved anything to Turgeon, it’s that his team is maturing at a rapid rate and already understands the magnitude of playing in what is considered the mecca of basketball.
“Our kids aren’t naive. They know what they’re getting into,” Turgeon said.
Turgeon may look back at the past week and identify it as a turning point in what has already been a wild season. He readily admitted that he didn’t fully love his team until he watched it rise to the occasion in an 89-81 loss to North Carolina last Tuesday, going punch for punch with the Tar Heels down the stretch after falling into an early hole.
He was further encouraged after the team ran into traveling problems on the way back from Chapel Hill, watching players bond and break down film on a five-hour bus ride back to College Park. About 48 hours later, Maryland looked fresh in a 41-point win over Saint Francis at home, playing its most complete game of the season on both ends of the floor to improve to 7-1.
Only after the week was over could Turgeon and his assistants turn their focus to Connecticut (5-2), which will prove to be another formidable challenge given the Huskies’ talent and a fan base that will likely turn Madison Square Garden into a hostile environment for the Terrapins.
Tuesday’s stage will be a “different animal,” Turgeon explained, than what Maryland has already faced against Georgetown and North Carolina. Both of those games provided unique environments, but Maryland dealt with jitters and started slowly in both games. Forward Robert Carter Jr. downplayed that trend as he met with reporters Monday, explaining that the Terrapins’ focus on the defensive end will be critical in shaping the first few minutes of the game.
“We can’t give up early baskets and let people get a lead on us early and have to battle back. That’s the only thing we’re working on,” said Carter, who is averaging 13.6 points and 6.6 rebounds per game this season.
While most of Maryland’s roster has never played a game inside the fabled arena, Maryland senior guard Rasheed Sulaimon has. He was part of the Duke team that beat St. John’s at Madison Square Garden last season, which clinched the 1,000th career win for Blue Devils Coach Mike Krzyzewski.
“Going back and thinking about the number of great basketball players and great games that have been in the mecca of basketball . . . everyone knows Madison Square Garden,” Sulaimon said. “It’s always fun to play at Madison Square Garden. I had a little bit of jitters, but at the same time, what we do is play basketball. So once the tip-off goes off, any jitters you may have had before the game or anything like that goes away.”
Connecticut’s height and deep rotation — the Huskies use 11 players — are areas of concern for Turgeon. Another priority is game-planning for Connecticut forward Daniel Hamilton, a 6-foot-7 sophomore who is averaging 12.6 points and 9.4 rebounds this season. Maryland, which fell four spots to No. 6 in the latest Associated Press Top 25 poll Monday, is still working on its own personnel issues as the season enters its second month.
Instead of sleepwalking through the first 20 minutes as it had in three previous games against mid-major opponents, Maryland was efficient against Saint Francis from the beginning. The Terrapins shot 67 percent from the field and amassed 96 points (22 assists on 31 made field goals), which was only accentuated by the fact that starting guards Melo Trimble and Sulaimon finished with just 11 points combined.
Maryland received 41 points off the bench, scored 38 in the paint and finished 25 of 29 from the free throw line, yet Turgeon may have been more encouraged by strides made on the defensive end after Maryland held the Red Flash to 29 percent shooting from the field. While the win came over a team picked to finish ninth in the Northeast Conference, Turgeon indicated that the performance underscored Maryland’s maturity against an inferior opponent after the loss at North Carolina.
“What I’m realizing with this team is that they like challenges. This is a great challenge for us. We continue to get better. We have a long ways to go, but we showed strides the other night,” Turgeon said. “I know it wasn’t a great team, but we were still much better defensively than we have been, so it’s a good sign that we’re heading in the right direction.”