It was only a month ago that Maryland was riding a seven-game winning streak and its players were full of hope — swagger, even — as they pronounced themselves eager to open the Atlantic Coast Conference portion of their schedule.
That sure feels like a long time ago.
Losers of five of their past six games, the Terps are falling victim to inexperience, late-game lapses and a conference schedule that includes two games apiece against North Carolina and Duke and is backloaded with road games.
Maryland's challenge now is the opposite of a month ago, when it was 10-3 and perhaps not fully appreciating the stern challenge that lay ahead. The task now is to not allow the weight of losing to obscure the team's improved play in the past few weeks.
As the Terps (13-9, 3-5 ACC) prepared for their game at Clemson (11-11, 3-5) on Tuesday night, Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said he told his players: "You should still be full of confidence even though we're not winning, because you're playing better."
Turgeon has said all season that wins and losses should not dominate his thoughts, nor those of his young team. He said he learned years ago that victories should be a byproduct of playing the game properly.
Of course, Turgeon is so competitive that he can't help but take losses hard. When discussing losing, the former Kansas point guard sometimes lower his head and stares at the floor or brushes his hand across his face in exasperation.
"It's no fun right now," he said Monday. "It's no fun losing. If it's fun losing, you're in the wrong profession, the wrong sport."
After a loss at Florida State on Jan. 17, Turgeon said he was irritated to find players "laughing and joking" in the showers.
It was a different scene after Maryland lost, 83-74, to No. 5 North Carolina at Comcast Center on Saturday — a game in which the Terps led by nine points early in the second half. Turgeon said Maryland committed a handful of mistakes on offense down the stretch. He said — as he has before — that sophomore guard Terrell Stoglin, the ACC's leading scorer, is progressing but needs to share the ball more in key moments. Stoglin was 1-for-9 on 3-pointers against the Tar Heels.
Swingman Sean Mosley (St. Frances) said he had not seen this season's team so disappointed than after the North Carolina loss.
"The locker room was quiet after the game. Guys just sat in their seats," said Mosley, the team's senior leader.
Turgeon said he took the dejectedness as "a good sign," and Mosley said: "I think we're about to improve a lot on the court."
The coach said Maryland is close to turning improvement — particularly in its defense — into victories. "It might be tomorrow, it might be next week. If not, I think we're laying a great foundation for the future," he said.
The recent losses have been like a hard splash of reality for a young team that had gained confidence in December after point guard Pe'Shon Howard returned from a broken foot and center Alex Len was cleared to play following eligibility questions.
Maryland's schedule doesn't get any easier. Five of the team's final eight regular-season games are on the road. The Terps haven't won a game on an opposing team's court this season.
Maryland is the ACC's only team to play North Carolina and Duke twice. It also plays Virginia and Miami two times. All those teams have winning conference records and are in the top half of the standings. The other team Maryland plays twice, Georgia Tech, is tied for last in the league.
Maryland has hinted that it might toughen its nonconference schedule in future seasons so it can get accustomed to road games before opening conference play. At the same time, all the ACC teams will soon have less flexibility in adding nonconference games because the arrival of Pittsburgh and Syracuse will lengthen the league schedule.
Asked about future schedules, Turgeon said: "I think when our program is ready for it, we'll challenge it."