Mark Turgeon slid into a folding chair behind the baseline at Comcast Center for a more intimate media availability Saturday because most local reporters were either watching Maryland’s first spring football practice of the year, covering the Terrapins men’s lacrosse game against Duke or simply no longer following a men’s basketball team whose NCAA tournament hopes had all but evaporated. Behind him, guard Dez Wells was focused on free throws. Roddy Peters and Seth Allen were playing one-on-one, without the usual friendly trash-talk. The shooting machine, normally whirring on similar afternoons, was idle and silent.
Over the past two weeks, the Terrapins have come so close to changing the course of their season only to see opportunity yanked away at the last moment. Last-second shots failed to connect against Duke and Syracuse. Heartbreak naturally threatened to derail the team’s psyche. So as the third-year coach surveyed the scene on the court, all of his players deliberate in their post-practice workouts, he glanced around as if to assess their morale.
“No, we’ve got a confident group,” Turgeon said one day before Maryland’s last ACC road game at Clemson (17-10, 8-7). “They know if they do what they’re supposed to do, we have a chance. We thought we were going to win all those games when we were in them. But we didn’t.”
Yet success still hasn’t arrived for the Terps after nearly three seasons under Turgeon, putting them at a unique crossroads. Down one avenue sits optimism, the bright side of single-possession losses to four teams projected to make the NCAA tournament field and the knowledge that seven total points have kept the season’s clearest goal out of reach. Down the other lurks gloom, born from the reality that Maryland likely needs to win the ACC tournament to avoid missing March Madness for the fourth straight year.
Being mostly teenagers blessed with unconditional belief, the Terps (15-13, 7-8) have chosen to trudge down the former path, at least partially blind to their sub-.500 conference record, winless mark in six games against ranked teams and the prospect that they now are playing to earn favorable ACC tournament matchups and erect building blocks for future seasons but little else.
“We’re always going to be aware,” forward Charles Mitchell said. “It’s one game at a time when you go into the tournament. You never know what’s going to happen. We’re playing for keeps. We still have to work on our seeding.”
The coaches have helped divert their attention, too. During Saturday’s practice, assistant Bino Ranson told everyone, according to Turgeon, “We may be down on the scoreboard, but we’re getting better and we’re practicing and we’re playing better.”
Motivational comments like that might not sit well with a restless fan base, but they underscore the approach being taken in College Park. The Terps are hanging on to confidence because positive results haven’t materialized and, once they lose their self-esteem, too, what then is the point?
“It doesn’t affect us,” said Allen, who missed a deep three-pointer at the buzzer against No. 4 Syracuse on Monday night. “It shows how good we can be, minus dumb stuff like turnovers. It shows us the potential of us that we can make a run later in the season.”
On the first day of March, as another monotonous, long break between games finished and the players left for their final road trip of this vexing season, the Terps feel they have improved over the past month. Though turnovers remain a thorny problem, their defense has been stingier and their offensive execution crisper. If Allen banks in his shot against the Orange and Mitchell coaxes a favorable roll from his baby hook against Duke on Feb. 15, then Maryland might be found on the NCAA tournament bubble.
Instead, the team will try to find meaning from these final three games, hounded by the knowledge that, until something changes, the National Invitation Tournament might again be its destiny.
“Kids are resilient,” Turgeon said, a phrase he has often repeated throughout this winter. “Do we like where we are? Absolutely not. Do we like the way we’re playing? Yeah, we’ve really played better.”