After one of the darkest days of his long career was over, complete with an embarrassing 24-point home loss to Michigan and the admission that his university was looking into alleged illegal payments to one of his former players, Maryland men’s basketball Coach Mark Turgeon’s cellphone began to buzz with messages, wondering about his state.

“Don’t worry about me. This is when I’m at my best,” Turgeon replied to each, and the next day he carried on with everyday life. He attended the Maryland women’s basketball game, in the same arena that had echoed with boos a day earlier. He attended his young son’s basketball game and later his oldest son’s high school playoff game at American University.

“There’s 4,000 people there. I wasn’t hiding. I’m proud of what I’ve done this year,” Turgeon said.

Just a year ago, those public appearances wouldn’t have underscored such tension. Turgeon had led Maryland to three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, including its first Sweet 16 appearance in more than a decade in 2016. He had just completed the first season of a new four-year contract extension, and despite losing to the NBA draft junior guard Melo Trimble — the player largely responsible for Maryland’s resurrection as a nationally relevant program — he was returning a promising young nucleus, including NBA prospect Justin Jackson.

The state of Maryland’s program looks far different entering this week’s Big Ten tournament in New York. After earning a double-bye into the league quarterfinals as a top-four seed in each of the previous three years, the Terrapins (19-12, 8-10) fell to eighth place this season and will meet ninth-seeded Wisconsin (14-17, 7-11) at noon Thursday at Madison Square Garden.

Maryland’s attendance, once among the highest in the country, has dipped. The school has been entangled in the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball and is conducting an internal review into alleged payments from an agent to former player Diamond Stone. And barring a minor miracle, the Terrapins appear destined to miss the NCAA tournament. Add in injuries and questionable coaching decisions, and Turgeon’s seventh season in College Park has been a slog, rife with calls for his job on social media and message boards.

“Hey, I love our fans. They love basketball. It’s a passionate fan base that loves basketball, so it comes with it. There’s not a coach in America that doesn’t have that with his job,” Turgeon said. “But trust me, I don’t listen to it. I don’t hear it. I don’t see it. I’m just worried about making our team better.”

Crucial year ahead

Program insiders maintain that Turgeon remains on solid ground with the administration and most donors, and that his success over the previous three seasons has won him goodwill with large portions of the fan base. “He didn’t win [26.3] games on average the last three years and then all of the sudden turn into a bad coach,” said one high-level booster, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

There are other factors that appear to bolster his job security, at least for this year. Turgeon has one of the country’s top incoming recruiting classes, which includes McDonald’s all-American Jalen Smith from Baltimore. The athletic department is in flux; though Damon Evans is a strong candidate to succeed Kevin Anderson as athletic director, he is acting on an interim basis while Anderson is on a six-month sabbatical announced Oct. 16. The school would also owe Turgeon the balance of his contract through the 2022-2023 season, which pays him $2.7 million this year, even if he were fired for poor performance.

Though Turgeon is more concerned with finishing out postseason play in March before turning his attention to the future, the year beyond looms large. He will wait for the internal investigation into Stone to wrap up — it could be done as soon as next week, he said, although any further potential implications from the FBI investigation or the possibility of an NCAA investigation remain unclear.

The coach also has a number of roster situations to shepherd this spring. Turgeon will likely return Anthony Cowan Jr. and Kevin Huerter, but he may well lose Jackson, who has been on the shelf since December with a season-ending shoulder injury, to the NBA draft. Freshman center Bruno Fernando is also a possibility to declare. Both of those decisions will tilt Maryland’s standing entering next preseason, as will any potential additions through high school recruiting or on the graduate-transfer market.

Turgeon might also have to toughen the team’s upcoming nonconference schedule, an area that has brought criticism. Maryland played the second-most difficult Big Ten schedule this season, according to the analytics website, its nonconference strength of schedule ranks 305th nationally. That was considerably lower than last season, when it ranked 188th and even the season before that, when it ranked 218th.

“I think Mark has to think about this, but I think it’s important to strengthen the nonconference schedule,” said Tom McMillen, a former basketball star and former member of the Board of Regents at Maryland. “That’s how you get your mettle in the beginning. Even if you lose, you come out of it a better team. And, also, it hurts your attendance a lot.”

In 2015-2016, Maryland led the Big Ten and was fifth nationally in attendance with 17,863 fans per game; a year later, it ranked second in the league and seventh nationally with 16,628 fans per game. That number fell to 14,676 this season, ranking fifth in the Big Ten; Maryland sold out just one game. There were ugly moments. Maryland led by just six at halftime against Division III Catholic University. It scored 18 points in the first half against UMBC. It blew a 13-point lead in the second half of a loss to Michigan State and was booed off the floor on senior day against Michigan. Turgeon was blasted on social media — there were plenty of #FireTurgeon hashtags — and on message boards for his team’s inconsistent effort and lack of adjustments. Throughout the season, fans at Xfinity Center seemed to groan more.

Letters and emails also were filed to the athletic department, including one from a longtime donor in early February that was addressed to Evans and obtained by The Washington Post. It began: “Tomorrow will be the first home conference basketball game I will have missed in over 25 years. It is becoming more and more difficult, in fact, dreadful to watch! Therefore, I am rethinking my athletic financial obligations,” the donor wrote to Evans.

Enduring a 'crazy' season

Turgeon has long known that this comes with the territory; he endured similar heat near the end of his third season at Maryland in 2013-2014, when the Terrapins missed the NCAA tournament for a third year in a row and five scholarship players transferred out in the offseason.

He has often blamed himself for coaching blunders, especially in close games. Maryland has lost eight games by six points or fewer this season, including by one point at Michigan in January, when the Wolverines exposed Maryland’s defense in the final seconds with a half-court pass that led to the winning points. More than a month later, after his team lost the regular season finale to the Wolverines at home, he said he simply didn’t have his team ready to play.

Yet Turgeon, aside from telling reporters on a weekly basis this his team is “fun” to coach, is adamant the shorthanded group has improved despite losing six of its last 10 games. He sought advice from coaching mentors including Larry Brown, North Carolina’s Roy Williams, Gonzaga’s Mark Few and Colorado’s Tad Boyle. He also had several conversations with his Hall of Fame predecessor at Maryland, Gary Williams.

“We all go through the same things,” Turgeon said.

The Terrapins have also had key players sidelined by injuries for a total of 46 games, forcing Turgeon and his staff to improvise with a motion offense in the middle of the season and cut down in practice time late in the year to preserve the remaining players. The Big Ten’s compressed schedule didn’t help.

Still, Maryland often had just as much talent in its starting five as most teams in the Big Ten. The most difficult part was adapting without depth. By January, as Maryland trudged through a regular season that would end with just one win (over Butler) in 10 games against opponents ranked in the top 50 of the Rating Percentage Index and just two Big Ten road wins (at Illinois and Northwestern), the players refused to use injuries as an excuse and Turgeon appeared more upbeat as a coach than he had in the past.

“I’ve seen him be a lot more positive than he was last year, and that really just changes everybody’s whole attitude, when we see him coming in and smiling and staying positive even though how crazy the season has been,” Cowan said.

That’s why Turgeon, despite all of the turmoil this season and the uncertainty that rests beyond, would not give up hope that his team could make one last push in the postseason. On Monday, he was back in College Park for practice at a quiet Xfinity Center.

“Nobody wants to win more than I do,” Turgeon said. “This is my life. This is what I do.”

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