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Mark Turgeon, Terps try to move past tumultuous offseason and on to new success

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COLLEGE PARK — This is not how Maryland men's basketball coach Mark Turgeon envisioned the Terps would enter the Big Ten Conference.

Coming off a disappointing 17-15 season and having lost half his scholarship players in a tumultuous four-week stretch this spring, Turgeon begins his fourth year at Maryland under increased scrutiny and facing more pressure than at any other point in his coaching career.

Despite speculation that he finds himself on the proverbial hot seat for the first time in his 17 seasons as a Division I head coach, Turgeon said that what the Terps lost in experience with the departures of five transfers, they more than make up for in cohesiveness.

Energized by the arrival of a top-10 recruiting class as well as two transfers, Turgeon's words and body language suggest he is more confident about the program's direction than at any other point since he was hired to replace recent Hall of Fame selection Gary Williams in May 2011.

"I think the pieces fit," Turgeon said in an interview Friday at Comcast Center. "I feel like we have some really, really good pieces. When you're putting a team together, it's all about pieces. … We've added guys who have a really good feel for the game."

For the 49-year-old coach, the honeymoon that seemed so obvious throughout most of his first season, and for parts of his second — notably, the Terps' 13-1 early-season start and postseason run to the National Invitation Tournament semifinals — is clearly over.

While many Maryland fans were once patient and excited about the program's future, more than a few now seem tired of waiting for Turgeon to turn things back around.

Longtime booster Barry DesRoches said the coming season "is a very important year for Mark," but that Turgeon's contract security — his contract runs through the 2018-19 season and pays him nearly $2 million a year — keeps it from being "make or break" if the Terps miss the NCAA tournament for a fifth straight season.

"I think the metric for me, personally, is to see how we're playing at the end of the year compared to the beginning of the year. What's the personality of the team? Have we improved?" said DesRoches, a Terrapin Club member and former member of the booster organization's board.

"He's got to be introspective about what didn't work well the first few years and what he can do better. We've got to go out there and play hard-nosed basketball. We're not going to win the Big Ten championship, but we've got to be out there as a team that's got no quit in it."

Turgeon said he doesn't feel any pressure from fans or the media, partly because he is not as active on social media as other coaches and partly because he says he never reads anything that is written about him or his team.

There is another reason, one that explains his success at Wichita State and Texas A&M and why he took over at Maryland.

"I have so much confidence in myself, the people around me and this great basketball program," he said. "I don't feel any pressure. I'm more relaxed today than at any point since I took the job. And I mean that. The hardest part is explaining it to recruits."

Recalling a conversation he had with the mother of one recruit who had mentioned his "hot seat," Turgeon said he told her: "Hot seat? I'm on fire. Melo Trimble. Dez Wells. Dion Wiley. Jared Nickens. Michal Cekovsky. Trayvon Reed. Robert Carter.

"I said: 'If I get any hotter, I don't know what I'm going to do.'"

Even with his offseason additions, Turgeon said he understands the growing frustrations of a fan base that will be important to the team's success going into the Big Ten, where home sellouts are more the norm than the exception.

"If they weren't mad, then I wouldn't want to be here," Turgeon said. "I like that the fans care enough to say bad things or say great things. I know just how I feel day to day. I'm in a much better place. I'm happier. I feel great about all the things that have happened this spring.

"I'm going to miss the guys [who left], but I feel great about everything. The hard part was going through it and waiting for summer school to get started and to where we are now. I think I'm really going to enjoy being between the lines with this group next season."

Fresh start

Seth Allen, whose May departure came as the biggest surprise after a sophomore season in which he finished second on the team in scoring, said Friday that his public reasoning for leaving Maryland might have belied his true feelings.

"A lot of us didn't want to burn bridges. We didn't want to leave on the wrong note," Allen, now at Virginia Tech, said in a telephone interview from Blacksburg on Friday. "We didn't want to put a lot of it out in the media. We wanted to do what's best for us and our family."

Allen acknowledged that "as a Maryland fan, of course you would be suspicious if five guys left at the same time, but you've got to put yourself in their shoes and see why they left."

While many suspect Allen left because he felt threatened by Trimble, an incoming freshman expected to compete for the starting point guard position Allen held, he said his exit was about "more than just basketball."

Saying he was "thankful for the two years they gave me," Allen added: "I had to make a decision whether the next two years [at Maryland] would be a good thing or if I had to move on."

Despite an up-and-down season that ended with the team's second postseason absence in three years, Turgeon said "we really, truly got along. We had fun off the court." The off-court chemistry last season, he said, was better than it was on the court.

"If you followed them on Facebook or Instagram or whatever that stuff is, they had fun," Turgeon said. "Maybe a little too much fun at times. Our pieces didn't fit between the lines. It wasn't like we were 5-25.

"As a coach, I could [not] care less if they get along off the court, as long as we get along on the court. The teams I played for at Kansas, there were guys at KU I didn't hang out with. I loved them, but I didn't hang out with them. When we were between the lines, they respected my game and I respected theirs. Hopefully, we're getting to that."

DesRoches said he and other fans were disturbed to see some of Turgeon's players, many of them now gone, smiling and laughing at seemingly inappropriate times last season.

"I saw guys that were having a lot of fun before the games, sometimes during the games and after the games," DesRoches said. "If you're going to succeed on this level, the thought is winning, period."

Forward Jake Layman, the only member of Turgeon's first recruiting class at Maryland still on the team, said the number of departures and arrivals — including assistant coach Cliff Warren, who replaced Scott Spinelli after Spinelli took a similar post at Boston College — "give it a little different of a fresh feel around here."

Layman said that as the team's offseason exodus began, with shooting guard Nick Faust (City), point guard Roddy Peters and center Shaquille Cleare leaving in early April, and Allen and forward Charles Mitchell departing in May, Turgeon was "very stressed out."

The addition of newcomers such as Trimble, Maryland's first McDonald's All-American recruit since Mike Jones in 2003, and Carter, one of the top young big men in the Atlantic Coast Conference during his two years at Georgia Tech, has changed the coach's mood dramatically.

"I think that's why he's happy, because he's comfortable with the guys we have right now," Layman said.

What Turgeon has for the first time is a clear delineation in terms of leadership, with some separation between upperclassmen such as Wells, Layman and forward Evan Smotrycz and one of the deepest and more diverse freshman classes in the country.

"With [7-foot-2] Trayvon Reed and the things he can do on the defensive end for us, with a guy like [Cekovsky] — he's really skilled — then you have two seniors in Dez and Smotrycz who've played in NCAA tournaments … [and] a junior in Jake Layman who's ready to take it to the next level," Turgeon said.

"You have older pieces who are good and big guys that have a chance to help us defensively, and you're bringing in a McDonald's All-American; [freshman small forward] Jared Nickens, who had a tremendous senior year and is much further along than we anticipated; then you have [freshman shooting guard] Dion Wiley, who brings a lot to the table."

Cavalier comparison

College basketball analyst Dan Bonner said Turgeon's first three seasons were not much different from what Tony Bennett experienced at Virginia. There was also high player turnover in Charlottesville, and the records — 53-41 overall and 21-27 in the ACC for Bennett, 59-43 and 23-29 for Turgeon — are nearly identical.

"You bring guys in, and they think they're going to be big stars, and they're not," Bonner said of the Cavaliers, who won the ACC regular-season and tournament titles last season.

"When all those guys left Virginia, I didn't view it as any criticism of Tony Bennett, either as a coach or as a person. I can see why, if you're a Maryland fan, you're saying, 'Oh, my God, what's happening?' I don't see it is as a criticism of Mark Turgeon or what he's trying to do.

"It takes a while to sort of get your bearing in terms of figuring out who's going to fit in your [system], in your conference, and I think that's where Maryland's at right now. I think it's going to be an adjustment in the Big Ten. The ACC is very good, the Big Ten is very good. But I think it's going to be an adjustment process. You keep tweaking it until you get it right, like Tony Bennett did at Virginia."

Bonner recalled a conversation he had with Bennett about what Bennett's father, former Wisconsin and Washington State coach Dick Bennett, told his son after he took over at Virginia.

"His dad's theory about it was that when you went into a place, you needed at least five years to put your stamp on the place to get things the way you want them," Bonner said. "I think, in a lot of cases, it's due to good fortune as much as anything else. At Maryland, except for bad luck, Mark's had very little luck."

Turgeon said last season was among the most frustrating he has endured as a head coach. The Terps might have been an NCAA tournament team had Allen not broken his left foot shortly before the start of the season, and a tough nonconference schedule, rated 17th in the country by season's end, "caught up with us at times," Turgeon said.

"Last year was tough because we felt like we were going to be pretty good, and then Seth breaks his foot and we didn't develop the way I thought we'd develop," he said. "If we could lose a close game, we lost it. And we lost confidence because of it.

"The thing that I'm most proud of last year is that we never stopped trying, we never really embarrassed ourselves down the stretch, we were in every game. We kept fighting. Obviously, there were problems within our team because of what happened after the season, but we never stopped trying between the lines."

Looking ahead

Texas coach Rick Barnes can relate to what Turgeon has gone through this spring.

A year ago, Barnes watched as five players with eligibility remaining left the Longhorns. Two went off to play professionally, but three, including two key contributors, transferred out.

With his team coming off a 16-18 season, Barnes' first losing campaign in 16 years in Austin and only his second in 27 years as a Division I head coach, some questioned how long he would remain at Texas.

Barnes believes there's a "correlation" between what transpired at Texas last summer and what is going on at Maryland.

Helped by a solid recruiting class, the Longhorns rebounded with a 24-11 season that ended with a third-round NCAA tournament loss to eventual semifinalist Michigan.

"In our situation, I felt like the guys who left didn't have a chance to be around guys who understood what it took" to win, Barnes said recently. "There's so many different things. It wasn't just one thing, but we knew it wasn't going to work with what we had in Austin."

What Turgeon has witnessed during the NCAA-sanctioned summer conditioning and team drills the past three weeks is encouraging.

But he knows what's ahead when the Terps play their first season in the Big Ten — which the school officially joins July 1 — considered by many to be the best college basketball league in the country the past few years.

"I feel really good about our program," Turgeon said. "Would I rather [the team] be a little bit older, a couple of more seniors, a couple of more juniors? Yeah, but that's not the case. But I have some really good guys who have some opportunities to play and I think the egos mesh well."

Layman said Turgeon shouldn't have to shoulder all of the criticism.

"A lot of people will put the blame on Coach, I think, but to me, when it comes down to it, it's all about the players," Layman said.

"We're the ones going on the court and winning games. If we build a culture around here that's going to get guys to work hard and focus on one common goal, I think we'll be fine this year, and I think we're heading in that direction."

don.markus@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sportsprof56

CHANGING PLACES

Since the end of the 2013-14 season, the Terps have had five scholarship players transfer, and they've brought in seven new players.

Additions

Richaud Pack — Rising fifth-year senior guard transferred from North Carolina A&T

Robert Carter Jr. — Georgia Tech transfer forward must sit out next season but will have two years of eligibility remaining

Michal Cekovsky — Slovakian incoming freshman forward from a basketball academy in the Canary Islands

Melo Trimble — Incoming freshman guard, a McDonald's All-American, from Bishop O'Connell in Upper Marlboro

Trayvon Reed — Incoming freshman center from Life Center Academy in Burlington, N.J.

Jared Nickens — Incoming freshman guard from Westtown School in West Chester, Pa.

Dion Wiley — Incoming freshman guard Potomac High in Oxon Hill

Subtractions

Nick Faust — Rising senior guard transferred to Long Beach State

Seth Allen — Rising junior guard transferred to Virginia Tech

Charles Mitchell — Rising junior forward transferred to Georgia Tech

Shaquille Cleare — Rising junior forward-center transferred to Texas

Roddy Peters — Rising sophomore guard transferred to South Florida

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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