Since the summer, Mark Turgeon has been adamant in his assessment of the Maryland men’s basketball team he coaches. The Terrapins went on an overseas trip to Italy. A group led by junior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. and sophomore big man Bruno Fernando had to feather in five freshmen — talented players, sure, but this was in so many ways a chemistry experiment. Collectively, they had to cleanse the bitterness of a disappointing 2017-18 season and become a new team — a better team.
“There’s something about ’em I can’t explain,” Turgeon said, before trying to explain it. “I think it’s about how much they care about each other, how much they love each other and how they play hard for each other.”
That’s a nice place to start, and it gives Maryland a chance — and perhaps a good one — at reestablishing itself as the kind of program the people who huddle into Xfinity Center on cold winter nights were once accustomed to. That would be a program capable of making 11 straight trips to the NCAA tournament, a streak that ended — can this be right? — 14 years ago. That would be a program that, when things break right, can beat anybody anywhere.
We might not be to the anybody-anywhere portion of this development. But this version of the Terrapins appears to be three things: talented, improving and fun. Friday night’s 78-75 victory over Indiana, which lifted the Terps to 5-1 in the Big Ten, featured a 14-point deficit that morphed into a 10-point lead, an indication of a young team’s poise. Monday night’s home game against Wisconsin presents the next opportunity for the Terps to separate themselves from the squishy middle of a conference that, with Michigan and Michigan State at the top and a pack of similar-looking teams just below, doesn’t offer many obvious chances for separation.
Yet here is Maryland, just three weeks after a disappointing home loss to Seton Hall, separating itself. Since the calendar flipped to 2019, the Terps have won in meaningful ways — a tight home game against then-No. 24 Nebraska in which string-bean freshman forward Jalen Smith hit the winning shot; road victories at (pretty lousy) Rutgers and (potential tourney team) Minnesota, both by double digits; and Friday’s comeback against the 22nd-ranked (but very injured) Hoosiers in which Fernando (25 points, 13 rebounds) was simply a load and Cowan (24 points, seven assists) showed why he is one of the conference’s best guards.
“It wasn’t just me and Bruno,” Cowan protested. He’s right, and that’s one of the reasons Turgeon has been high on this team.
I’ll admit: When the Terps made just one field goal in the final seven minutes of a two-point loss at Purdue in early December, I was suspicious of their ability to execute late in close games — a perceived bugaboo for Turgeon’s Maryland teams, though he bristles at the suggestion. When they lost to Seton Hall — which had beaten Kentucky, yes, but also had been pummeled by Nebraska and lost at home to Saint Louis — you kind of wondered whether Maryland’s players were better but the results would be the same.
Now there’s mounting evidence that the results will be different.
“We knew we had a lot of talent coming in, just looking around the locker room,” said freshman guard Eric Ayala, whose game makes up in grease and grime what it lacks in polish. “But now it’s starting to jell and bond and be that team that we knew we could be.”
The team Maryland knew it could be has a foundation in Cowan’s cool and Fernando’s brawn. But part of the fun comes in all the pieces around the foundation. In admiring Cowan’s growth from last year, Indiana Coach Archie Miller made an off-handed but salient point.
“They’ve got good players around him,” Miller said, “so he has space to play.”
Indeed, Turgeon can comfortably play eight players and not worry one stands out as obviously deficient. All eight of those players average at least 10 minutes a game, and all eight of those players deserve it.
“We’re deep,” Ayala said.
That depth shows in a variety of ways. Smith, the most heralded of the Terps’ freshman class, entered the Indiana game having established himself as a player to watch. The 39 NBA scouts who made their way to Xfinity Center certainly eyed Fernando and Indiana freshman Romeo Langford, one of the nation’s most talented players. But they had to anticipate eyeing the spindly Smith, too, because he hit the big bucket against Nebraska, because he pushed the Terps past Minnesota with 21 points and eight rebounds, because he had averaged 17.6 points in his previous five games.
And against Indiana, he forgot how to play.
“It was one of those nights,” Turgeon said. “Tripping over his feet, fumbling balls. I felt bad for him because he’s such a terrific player.”
But in enduring Smith’s 0-for-9 evening — a night when he was nearly as bad defensively, despite snaring 10 rebounds — the Terps showed why they have the potential to be a terrific team. Not every Big Ten team could survive a no-show from a player capable of carrying it. Maryland did, a serious indication of the improvement in the past month.
What does all this mean? Monday’s home date with Wisconsin is followed by back-to-back games at No. 16 Ohio State and No. 6 Michigan State. Each of those games could be lost without much shame, and in 10 days, the conversation around the Terrapins could be different.
The trend right now, though: Exactly as Turgeon foresaw it during a summer trip to Italy and exactly as he wants it as winter marches forward.
“I’d like to think [given] how far we’ve come since December 27, where could we be on February 1?” Turgeon asked. “Where could we be on February 15? We’ll see.”
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.