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A 'tougher' Mark Turgeon aims to lead Maryland back to the NCAA tournament

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COLLEGE PARK — The one constant in Mark Turgeon's steady climb up the coaching ladder was building the type of reputation that most in his profession covet. It is summed up by two simple letters that for decades have described some of basketball's top minds: X's and O's.

Trying to attract what once were called blue-chip prospects to programs that were off the radar because of location, league affiliation or fan interest was often difficult, making it crucial for Turgeon to outcoach his counterparts. More often than not, he succeeded.

Now starting his third season at Maryland as successor to Gary Williams, one of the most respected bench coaches in modern college basketball history, Turgeon finds himself at an interesting juncture in his career.

He is being hailed as a top-notch recruiter, but questions remain about his ability to coach.

"I don't feel like I have to prove anything because I know I can do that, but I don't like that my team looks like it is not well-coached," Turgeon said Tuesday, sitting in his office at Comcast Center. "Sometimes last year I just had to let them go, the less that was in their mind, the better they played."

Turgeon admits that at times last season "it looked like street ball. But I think now they can handle both situations [running a set play or freewheeling]. They know how to play the right way. I just have a good team, and I've got to make the most of it."

As the Terps begin the season against No. 18 Connecticut at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Friday night, their 48-year-old coach knows he will be facing more scrutiny in the coming months than he has in the 2 ½ years since taking over after Williams retired.

Turgeon understands that another long run in the National Invitation Tournament won't be acceptable to a fan base that became a bit frustrated by the way Turgeon's team played a year ago. The Terps last made the NCAA tournament in 2010.

"I think if we win one more game [in last season's ACC tournament against North Carolina], we're in the NCAA tournament and that's pressure off me," Turgeon said. "By doing what we did [winning three games in the NIT], helped our program more.

"It might not have helped me, but I think everybody around here, especially my boss [Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson], realizes that we're doing the right things and taking the proper steps. Unfortunately in today's world, all that matters is the NCAA tournament and how you play once you get there. Our goal is to be in that thing and be successful."

Typically blunt, Turgeon acknowledged that the coaching job he did for much of last season was not as good as in his first year. Last year the Terps finished 25-13 after racing out to a 13-1 start against less-than-stellar competition and then struggling to find consistency for most of the Atlantic Coast Conference schedule. Maryland was 17-15 in Turgeon's first season.

"I think the first year I thought I got as much out of that team as I possibly could get," Turgeon said. "We looked like we were coached. Terrell [Stoglin] was going to shoot, he had to shoot. X-and-O, bench coaching-wise, last year was a disappointment to me. I could never really figure the team out until the very end.

"We finally figured it out, which made the summer a lot better. I'd like to think we're going to be well-coached and that most of my teams are well-coached. There were a lot of times last year when I wondered whether we were. To be well-coached, you've got to have players buy into what you're doing and I think this team this year has totally bought in to what we're doing."

Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown, who gave Turgeon a scholarship at Kansas and later made him his captain on a team that reached the 1986 Final Four, said no one should question Turgeon's ability on the bench.

"There's no doubt in my mind that he knows the game as well as anybody. He's as smart a player as I've ever coached," Brown, now in his second year coaching SMU, said Thursday. "He sat next to me at Kansas [as a graduate assistant] and he sat next to me in Philly [as an assistant with the 76ers], and I valued his input. I think he's as good as anybody who I ever worked with."

Brown said Turgeon had to overcome some obstacles his first two seasons, first replacing a high-profile coach such as Williams and then making a player such as 7-1 sophomore Alex Len the centerpiece of his team.

"Any time you follow a great coach there are always going to be people making comparisons," Brown said. "Even though he loved Alex, it's not an easy thing when the kid already has his bags packed. If they had Alex from the beginning his first year or injury-free, I don't think people would have any reservations or doubts about how well he can coach."

Brown, who speaks with Turgeon on a regular basis, said that his former player is more concerned with returning Maryland to national prominence than building his resume.

"It's never about him," Brown said."It's about the kids and the people he works with."

Jim Turgeon, who coaches women's basketball at Iowa Western Community College said that the criticism his younger brother received for the way the Terps played last season had to bother him, but that he is better equipped to handle it than he was before.

"Mark is human. I think it does bother him a little bit, but the more you do this, the more experience you get at that, you kind of let that kind of roll off you," said Jim Turgeon, who is 2 ½ years older. "I think he's got a lot thicker skin than maybe when he was at Texas A&M or Wichita State. I think it bothers him, but it's not going to change who he is and how he does things at all."

What hasn't changed is his younger brother's competitiveness.

"He's been like that since he was four years old," Jim Turgeon said.

Mark Turgeon said the first indication of trouble last season came when the Terps played Florida State at home in early January, a few days after beating Virginia Tech.

"When things did get tough for the first time, we didn't know how to handle it," he said. "Florida State at home was the first time we got challenged. We had a 16-point lead [in the first half]. We're thinking, 'we're pretty good'. Then here comes the D. They made some shots to beat us in the end, but we absolutely panicked. That was an eye-opener for me."

Turgeon has taken a different tact with his team since it first practiced this summer in preparation of a three-game tour in the Bahamas in early August. Always a perfectionist, Turgeon's tone with the players is now more strident.

"I think this year is definitely different than last year," said junior forward Evan Smotrycz, who is eligible after transferring from Michigan and sitting out last season. "He's definitely been tougher on guys. He expects more."

Turgeon acknowledges that he's been harder on he players, and he says their attitude is different now as the Terps head into Friday's season opener at the Barclays Center, where Maryland lost last season's opener to then-defending national champion Kentucky.

"I think our guys are about winning now," he said. "In the end, when the game is over, it's all about winning with this group. My first couple of years it might have not been that way. I think it's getting to that point and it shows in practice. Last year I had to beg guys to practice. This year I've had to dial them back."

Smotrycz concurs.

"I think guys are really learning what it takes to win now," he said. "Everyone wants to win every drill. It's definitely a change of from what it has been in the past, where guys had lackadaisical attitudes and might have had a bad day and kind of checked out. Everyone's really coming together and playing hard. That's a start."

It's a start that's been a couple years in the making, with Turgeon acknowledging that his transition in taking over Maryland has been a greater challenge than when he arrived at Wichita State or Texas A&M.

""This was just a different deal," he said. "In the end, it's going to help us. I think it's just familiarity. It's Year 3. Some guys have been in the system for three years.

"It's no fun going through what we went through. I think it's amazing that we won 42 games [over the past two years], to be honest, and that we were able to beat Duke twice [last season], which means a lot to people. I'm pretty happy with where we are. It just takes time. I think all the programs I've been at, they're all a little bit different. It just comes down to getting to know each other and believing in what you're trying to do as a group."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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