Twice this week, Coach Mark Turgeon tried to temper the swelling optimism surrounding his Maryland basketball team, turning to a centuries-old idiom for an explanation.
“Everyone’s got the cart way before the horse,” Turgeon said Tuesday in pregame remarks to reporters.
“We’re a very young basketball team and we’ve got the cart way before the horse,” Turgeon said after the Terrapins pounded Maryland-Eastern Shore, 100-68, on Wednesday night.
The Terrapins still aren’t ranked in the top 25, having received just nine votes in the latest Associated Press poll and none in the latest coaches’ poll. But fan excitement has nonetheless accelerated, catalyzed by seven straight wins, a 7-1 record and young talent across Turgeon’s roster. Center Alex Len’s NBA draft stock has soared, and by all accounts the national attention should arrive in droves once ACC play begins in January, especially if Maryland lives up to its perceived potential.
But Turgeon never reads the articles, and didn’t seem concerned that his young players could get swept up into the hype, an idea they themselves shook off. The Terrapins could be hard-pressed to crack the national rankings before hosting Virginia Tech on Jan. 5, especially with a soft nonconference home schedule continuing Saturday afternoon against South Carolina State (4-3). So who’s exactly putting the cart before the horse? And is it even a problem?
“Everyone expects us to be great,” Turgeon said Friday. “These guys, to do what they’re doing, is pretty impressive to me. We’re nowhere near where we’re going to be.
“I’m not worried about my guys because we’re practicing hard. If we weren’t, I’d make sure we practiced hard. They’re not feeling that way. They know we have a long ways to go. I think our perception’s a lot better than reality with us. We played a nice game at Northwestern, really guarded them, showed strides. But we’ve got so far to go. It was nice to give guys confidence. I don’t want people thinking we’re this great team. Because we’re not yet. We’ve got a chance to be. We’re getting better and improving each day.”
Cliches aside, Turgeon’s nature as a coach inherently tempers expectations. Criticisms and praise are constants during postgame press conferences, one often following the other. The hunger still burns because, as Turgeon has said, Maryland really is just 2-1 in its three games against tougher foes, with wins over George Mason and Northwestern and a season-opening loss to Kentucky.
“We’re as good as we want to be. It’s as hard as we work all the time, as hard as we want to play, as good as we want to be,” freshman Charles Mitchell said. “We have a lot to improve on, but it’s ultimately up to us, how hard we play as a team. We focus on what we’re doing, not what’s on the outside happening. It helps build team chemistry as a whole.”
Even when Turgeon backs off, his players pick up the slack. Against Maryland-Eastern Shore, Mitchell was whistled for two fouls in a two-minute span. Jogging to the bench, Mitchell was visibly displeased with the calls, but got immediately jumped by Dez Wells. “Don’t do that, you look silly,” Turgeon recalled Wells saying. “Just get over here and quit fouling.”
Veterans such as Nick Faust and James Padgett have stepped into leadership roles, holding teammates more accountable. Junior John Auslander, the 11th man in Turgeon’s rotation, has at times served as a de facto player-coach. Assistant Bino Ranson likes to tell the Terrapins to “never get too high and never get too low.”
“It’s up to you as an individual,” freshman Shaquille Cleare said. “If you want to fall for the hype, then go ahead. I’m not going to fall for it.”