When the Maryland basketball team returned from a tournament in Puerto Rico right before Thanksgiving, first-year coach Mark Turgeon seemed resigned to the fact that it was going to be a long season in College Park.
Along with what appeared to be a lengthy rehabilitation for point guard Pe'Shon Howard, Turgeon was frustrated with the fact that the Terps had not bought into his defensive tenets nor had they exhibited any interest in working hard in practice.
Flash forward to Wednesday's post-game news conference at Comcast Center after a 65-61 win over Florida International, Maryland's third straight game that had gone down to the wire.
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Unlike the previous two, when the Terps blew double-digit leads against Notre Dame and Mount St. Mary's before hanging on, they came back from an 11-point first-half deficit and played much of the second half without leading scorer Terrell Stoglin.
Turgeon was almost giddy -- at least for him -- in the way Maryland did a lot of things wrong offensively (12 turnovers to only nine assists) but won because of its defense.
"The hardest thing for this group is confidence," Turgeon said. "We play (at times) with zero confidence, except for Terrell.
"Hopefully as the year goes on we’ll become more confident in ourselves and as a team we’ll become more confident."
Said Stoglin, who finished with 20 points despite shooting 4 of 13 from the field, "I feel that coach feels that we don’t know how to win but we’re learning. We’re getting better and that’s the main thing."
The Terps are also getting Howard back for the first time since he broke his foot in the preseason, and will have 7-foot freshman center Alex Len for the first time since signing with Maryland last summer.
Howard has said that he'll be back for the Dec. 23 game against Radford and Len is scheduled to return from his 10-game NCAA suspension Dec. 28 against Albany.
That means the Terps should have their whole team together for three games prior to the start of the ACC schedule Jan. 8 at North Carolina State.
Here are five things to look for when the Terps get back from their break for final exams:
1. How quickly Howard can assert himself as the floor leader. It's going to take awhile for the sophomore from Los Angeles to get in playing shape, but it's essential that he takes over running the team and getting the ball to the right people in the right places. Right now, the Terps have trouble executing a simple fastbreak at times, let alone a zone offense.
2. How readily Stoglin accepts going back to the shooting guard. There will be a transition period when Stoglin and Howard share the point, but once Howard is ready to go between 30-35 minutes a game, Stoglin is going to have figure out how to play off the ball. Sean Mosley and Nick Faust are used to that and should benefit greatly by Howard's return.
3. How Turgeon is going to fit together the pieces around Len. Many have said that the freshman from the Ukraine is going to be an NBA player, maybe even a lottery pick. If that is true, teams are going to be forced to double-team him and depending on how good he can pass out of traps, it will open things up not only for Maryland's shooters but for players like James Padgett and Ashton Pankey. Both have shown flashes of being decent, if not better than average, low-post scorers.
4. How Mosley, Faust or even Stoglin deal with the possibility of not starting. Turgeon, like other coaches, says it's about who finishes and not who starts, but we know that most college players don't really believe that. Howard and Len are eventually going to be in the starting lineup. I can see Turgeon moving Faust, as a freshman who has struggled at times this year, to the bench, along with either Pankey, a redshirt freshman, but he'll be losing a lot of length on the floor.
5. How good can the Terps actually be? I am starting to think this might not be as difficult a season as some, even Turgeon, once predicted. Aside from Duke and North Carolina, the ACC is not exactly the powerhouse it once was and there are a lot of new and relatively unproven coaches. Starting out with N.C. State on the road, followed by Wake Forest and Georgia Tech at home, could give Maryland some early confidence that can carry for the bulk of the season.
With the Terps off until Dec. 23, and with the tumult going on with the football team, Jeff and I will likely be concentrating our efforts on following Randy Edsall's program for the next few days. In fact, I'm in the process of trying to track down Mike Locksley to see if we can get something more on Maryland's new offensive coordinator later today.