Mark Turgeon’s eighth season as the coach of the Maryland men’s basketball program is about to begin, and if that seems like a long time, well, that’s because it is. This is the 100th season of Terrapin basketball, and there is no escaping the expectations a century of history brings. The coach who built the modern version of Maryland hoops, Lefty Driesell, finally went into the Hall of Fame last month. The Terrapins practiced Tuesday on Gary Williams Court at Xfinity Center, their weave drills running over an enlarged version of the signature from another Hall of Famer.
Part of that history now won’t be as warmly remembered: Turgeon’s 2017-18 Terps, who went 19-13, finished eighth in the Big Ten and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in four years. Get that out of the way immediately.
“I’ll answer it now, just because someone’s going to ask it,” Turgeon said Tuesday at his program’s annual preseason media day. “We were disappointed in last season. It didn’t go the way we wanted.”
An honest assessment that fits into the program’s past, because eighth-place finishes don’t wash in the ACC or the Big Ten. But here’s another one: that 2017-18 campaign must be a blip and not a trend for Turgeon and his Terps. This is a big year for the 53-year-old coach, who wholly and completely owns the program now.
College sports fandom is inherently fickle. Purchase a sweatshirt or a hat — or, better yet, sign a tuition check and hang a degree — and the right to gripe comes free, particularly at places that have won in the past. Maryland has Williams’s 2002 national title, so every Terrapin backer knows the outer limits of what’s possible. If Gary did it, why can’t it happen again?
Turgeon is in Williams’s old chair. Forget, for a moment, the outer limits: Can October annually bring optimism and excitement, and will that optimism and excitement be warranted?
This year brings another layer, too, one nothing of Turgeon’s making. For all the tragedy and turmoil that has engulfed the football program — and, in turn, the athletic department and, in turn, the entire university — Maryland has long been a basketball school. Jordan McNair’s death following a football workout shook the whole place. Two investigations thus far have yielded zero resolution, which is astonishing. The athletic department feels in permanent limbo.
Thus, the basketball program must help restore the athletic faith. Whether he signed up to or not, that’s now part of Turgeon’s job: Make Maryland fun again.
Turgeon is here to say he has the players to do that. “I like my team,” he said. It’s the kind of thing a coach would seem to say every year, particularly when he is as deep as seven or eight seasons into his tenure. The program is eternally colored by the characters from its past, Albert King and John Lucas, Lenny Bias and Walt Williams, on and on. But its fortunes aren’t determined by the glory years. Its fortunes are determined by the man in charge.
So when he says he likes his team, do we believe him?
“I don’t know if I said that or not last year,” Turgeon said. “ . . . I’m guessing I didn’t.”
Turgeon’s guess: He didn’t, because he simply didn’t love that team.
And yet, in early November: “I like my team. We are off to a good start in practice.”
And yet, after a November win against Butler: “I like my team.”
And yet, in December, according to the Baltimore Sun: “I like my team and I like being around them.”
So take this year’s preseason assessment for what it’s worth. But look back for what might be learned about what’s ahead. Those Terps, which included early departures Kevin Huerter and Justin Jackson, didn’t give Turgeon confidence as he led October practices and coached early-season games. It was a feel thing. He wouldn’t say it in the moment because he wouldn’t sell out his guys, which is understandable. But that also makes evaluating preseason proclamations flat fickle.
The reality was the year devolved in a spiral of injuries and underperformance. Whatever the reasons, it’s amazing how quickly the momentum of three straight NCAA appearances and top-three finishes in the Big Ten can evaporate.
“At this time last year,” Turgeon said, “I didn’t feel as comfortable with that team as I do with this team, just to be perfectly honest with you.”
Huerter is now with the Atlanta Hawks, a first-round draft pick. Jackson, shut down midway through last season with a shoulder injury, went in the second round to the Denver Nuggets. Lose two NBA-worthy talents — and improve?
That’s the task at Turgeon’s feet. That’s the task Turgeon believes he will handle.
“I really like where we are right now,” he said.
Does he mean it? This time, he has to mean it.
“You guys are all, ‘Really, Coach?’ ” he said, and he is right in that evaluation. But he doubled down. “I really like where we are.”
Where he is: a roster with one scholarship senior (oft-injured forward Ivan Bender) and one scholarship junior (preseason all-Big Ten guard Anthony Cowan) and six — count ’em, six — freshmen. The charge: become a team quickly, and improve over the course of five months. This isn’t the old days, when Williams could bring in less-than-marquee guys — Juan Dixon, Steve Blake, Lonny Baxter — and mold them through four years. This is college basketball deep into the 21st century, when the reality is: Your age and your class don’t matter. Perform — now.
So the focus of this year’s Terps will be Cowan and sophomore big man Bruno Fernando, an excellent outside-inside foundation. But Turgeon will need to develop — and fast — 6-foot-10 forward Jalen Smith, 6-6 wing Aaron Wiggins and 6-5 point guard Eric Ayala, at least.
“I’ll say this about all our guys we signed,” Turgeon said. “We knew we signed a good class. But across the board they’re all a little bit better than I thought.”
Turgeon, then, must understand two things: What it means to say he likes his team. It’s not just a confidence-boosting internal motivator or a shield to hide what’s really going on, but it creates optimism for a fan base that expects to be optimistic, and no one wants false optimism. Furthermore, how does that optimism fit in a program embarking on its 100th season, knowing one of those years ended in a national championship?
“I’m hoping we can get to the goals that I set when I came here,” Turgeon said. “We’ve done a lot of nice things, but we all know what our ultimate goal is at Maryland, and it should be that way every year.”
Maybe it will be that way every year. The first task, though, is establishing last season as an outlier and showing all those people who bought the sweatshirts and paid for tuition that the basketball program can restore faith in an institution that desperately needs some.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.