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Picked near bottom of Big Ten, Terps men's basketball team 'a good mesh' of players

COLLEGE PARK — The dynamics of a college basketball team can resemble that of a college fraternity, the closeness of its members fractured by class, ego and perhaps a little insecurity.

A year after the Maryland men's basketball team appeared to be more dysfunctional than dynamic, Mark Turgeon returns with what he calls a "low maintenance" Terps squad that looks and acts much different that its immediate predecessor.

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Part of the new-found maturity stems from the fact that the returning players from an underachieving bunch that finished 17-15 in its Atlantic Coast Conference farewell have embraced the newcomers — four freshmen and senior transfer Richaud Pack — going into Maryland's inaugural season in the Big Ten.

"I think there's a respect factor among our team, they respect each other's abilities," Turgeon said Tuesday during the team's media day at the Xfinity Center. "This group seems to really get along between the lines and understand each other's games. It's been great so far. Playing time changes things, but they've really been together. It's been a good mesh."

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What also helps is that the new players — particularly McDonald's All-American Melo Trimble, who is expected to be the first point guard to start for the Terps as a freshman since Eric Hayes in 2006 — are more grounded than most of the five players who transferred last spring.

"I was just very impressed from the time they got here in the summer, they've been working extremely hard since they got here," said senior forward Jon Graham, one of the few blue-collar players on a team that saw its work ethic wane on a regular basis last season. "They've been dialed in from Day 1."

Said Turgeon: "We have group of guys coming back who are very determined to be successful, they've worked extremely hard, and we have a group of new guys that are good basketball players, but also very humble."

Last spring, the dysfunction that played out during the season — even on the bench in the middle of a game, when Turgeon had to tell former Terps forward Charles Mitchell to leave as Maryland was playing Virginia Tech — erupted during six weeks of turmoil. The rash of transfers led to questions about Turgeon's future with the Terps.

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Asked what it will be like no longer having players such as point guard Seth Allen, the team's second-leading scorer last season behind Dez Wells, and Mitchell, the leading rebounder a year ago, Turgeon said their decision to leave might have had something to do with those players coming into the program.

"Because the players coming in are so great, maybe that's why some of the things happened the way they happened," Turgeon said. "I love my team. I've got 11 guys on scholarship that are all really good players, want to be here. We expect to have a great year."

Turgeon smiled.

"Guys getting the hint?" he asked the media assembled in the Heritage Hall for Monday's news conference.

Still, Turgeon said he understands the skepticism that led to Maryland recently being picked to finish 10th in its first season in the Big Ten. Turgeon and many of his players head into the season with a collective chip on their shoulders that might not have been there during his first three years.

"A new league and what's transpired in the past, it's probably hard to have a lot of confidence [from fans and media] that we're going to be one of the top teams in the Big Ten," said Turgeon, who is still in search of his first NCAA tournament berth since coming to Maryland in 2011. "I do think there's a little extra in us. It's never fun what we went through. We're pretty determined. … We're always determined going into a season, but maybe there's a little more inside us this year."

The fact that senior forward Evan Smotrycz sustained a broken left foot in practice Friday and will miss the next six weeks after undergoing surgery Tuesday could be viewed as a setback to a team that is neither deep in the frontcourt nor experienced. A little uncharacteristic for Turgeon, he is taking a more optimistic approach about Smotrycz's injury, which is considered less serious than the broken foot that kept Allen out for more than two months last season.

"It maybe a blessing in disguise in the end," Turgeon said. "We're really strong in the backcourt, we have a lot of good players. This will give me an opportunity to play them more while Evan's out."

Turgeon specifically means the freshmen and Pack, who is both a newcomer in terms of familiarity at Maryland and a veteran in terms of age and presence. Pack said he is something of a "link" between the younger players and those returning.

Three of the freshmen — Trimble, guard-forward Jared Nickens and shooting guard Dion Wiley — had the letters "MBK" tattooed into their left legs. It stands for my brother's keeper. Nickens said the bond extends to the rest of the team as well.

"It's been a great experience, all the older guys have took us under their wing from Day 1. It's just been a big family, we all look after each other and make each other better," Nickens said.

Even freshman big man Michal Cekovsky, the 7-foot Slovakian, said Tuesday that Turgeon, his assistants and his new Maryland teammates are "my second family now."

Junior forward Jake Layman, the only player left from a highly-touted 2012 recruiting class that didn't quite live up to its promise, said the incoming freshmen are not as wide-eyed and unprepared as he was two years ago.

"I think those guys coming in have seen the way that me, Dez and Evan have acted through this whole offseason and preseason in showing them the right way to do things," Layman said. "They've caught on. There've been some bumps here and there, but we're all doing great right now."

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