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As season ends, Terps feel 'this is just the beginning of a bright future'

COLUMBUS, OHIO — A year ago, the exodus was about to begin at Maryland. Five scholarship players with remaining eligibility left the program after a 17-15 season that concluded with the Terps failing to reach the postseason for the second time in Mark Turgeon's three years and the NCAA tournament for the fourth straight year.

As the 2014-15 season ends, the excitement around the program is only building.

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After Sunday's 69-59 loss to West Virginia in the third round of the NCAA tournament, the Terps (28-7) are expected to lose five scholarship players — swingman Dez Wells, forwards Evan Smotrycz and Jon Graham and guards Richaud Pack and Varun Ram.

For Turgeon, it's not so much who's leaving, but who will return and who's coming in for next season.

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Barring the departure of freshman Melo Trimble to the NBA — a move that is considered highly unlikely despite the 6-foot-3 point guard being named first-team All-Big Ten by the media — Maryland will arguably return its most talented team since winning a national championship in 2001-02.

"A year ago today, I was not in a very good place," Turgeon said in the hallway outside the locker room Sunday night at Nationwide Arena. "Today, I'm in a great place because of that group in there. I knew in June that they were going to be a good group, and they would be fun to coach. I just hate that I couldn't help them more tonight and get them to a Sweet 16. I'm really really proud of this group — 28 wins and they did a lot of great things. Great kids."

Asked if what the Terps have coming back for next season makes the loss to the Mountaineers easier to digest, Turgeon smiled.

"We set a standard. We set a standard where Maryland basketball should be at," he said. "We had great leadership in Dez Wells. He was unbelievable this year. Our leadership standard has been set. The way we should win has been set. We have great young players coming back. We have a really good one sitting out in Robert Carter. We're going to do some things in recruiting too.

"We've got a lot of momentum. Maryland's a special place. This is just the beginning of a bright future."

The 6-foot-9, 240-pound Carter is expected to give the Terps an inside presence they have lacked since Alex Len left. Carter sat out this season after transferring from Georgia Tech, where he averaged 11.4 points and 8.4 rebounds as a sophomore, and he spent the past year improving his 3-point shot.

Along with Carter, 6-9, 210-pound forward Ivan Bender, a former star on the Croatian junior national team, came to College Park in early January sat out this season. Jaylen Brantley, a former 4-star recruit who just finished a year of junior college, will give the Terps a second point guard they lacked in the loss to the Mountaineers.

In terms of recruiting, Maryland is one of the finalists — along with Wisconsin and Connecticut — for 6-10, 250-pound Diamond Stone, who just led his team in Milwaukee to its fourth straight state title and is ranked the No. 2 center recruit in the country and the No. 7 player overall. The Terps are also in the running with Arizona and Louisville for Yankuba Sima, a 6-11 forward from Spain who played with freshman center Michal Cekovsky last year in the Canary Islands.

According to a source familiar with Maryland's recruiting plans, Turgeon could also be in the market for a defensive-minded wing who can help ease the burden of losing the team's two best perimeter defenders, Wells and Pack. The player could be an incoming freshman or a fifth-year senior who, like Pack, could become eligible immediately.

Aside from Trimble, their leading scorer, the Terps will bring back another freshman who showed his promise as a 3-point shooter with a penchant for making big shots — 6-7 wing Jaren Nickens. His 12-point outburst in the first half of Friday's victory over Valparaiso was similar to contributions he made in wins over Iowa State and at Oklahoma State. Terps legend Juan Dixon even said Nickens reminded him of himself.

"I trust Coach Turgeon and the coaching staff that they're going to bring in the right pieces for us," Nickens said. "We're going to have Rob Carter next year. We're going to spend the summer getting stronger and quicker and just getting better skillwise and adding dimensions to our game. Being that we have one year under our belt, next year we'll be very good. We'll be great."

Two other freshmen, shooting guard Dion Wiley and the 7-1 Cekovsky, also showed flashes of potential in big-game settings. Early in the season, Wiley kept the Terps competitive against Virginia in a game Wells missed with a fractured wrist. Late in the season, Cekovsky held his own against Wisconsin All-American Frank Kaminsky in a game won by the Terps at Xfinity Center.

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One of the biggest voids will be filling the leadership provided by the seniors, Wells in particular.

Though he did not play well Sunday night — finishing with nine points and eight turnovers while playing with an upper respiratory condition that he developed over the weekend — Wells will be remembered in College Park as a player who helped made the Terps relevant on a national level.

"Dez's legacy's going to be, he put Maryland back on the map," Turgeon said. "Maryland basketball had been off the map for five years. He put Maryland back on the map with his leadership, his competitive spirit. Think about what we did. We won nine out of 10 games down the stretch.

"That's so hard to do in college basketball unless you have the best players, or seven pros running around, which we don't. Dez just put us on his back. His legacy's going to be is that he brought Maryland basketball back to where it needs to be."

Junior forward Jake Layman, who was a third-team Big Ten selection by the media, will be the only returning senior, so he will need to take the next step in his overall development as a player and become a more vocal leader, something he showed signs of doing this season despite not being as natural in that role as Wells.

"Obviously becoming a senior, definitely [I've] got to step into that leadership," Layman said. "We losing a lot of seniors. That's tough to replace. With the experience the young guys got this year, we're going to have leadership all around."

Despite the disappointing loss to end of the season, Layman said he can appreciate what the Terps accomplished over the past few months.

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"I think everyone's looking at it that way," he said. "Obviously this loss hurts, but every one is looking back at this year and saying, 'Wow, we did special things when nobody really believed in us.' It's just a really special year, and it's just a pleasure to be a part of this team and this program."

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Turgeon turned emotional Sunday when talking about what this year's team meant to him.

In a 17-year head coaching career, Turgeon has said on a number of occasions that it was one of the most fun and satisfying to bring along. In the locker room after the game, Turgeon brought his players together for one final huddle to share his appreciation for what they had done.

"Obviously it's been an unbelievable year," he said, his voice starting to crack. "I just wanted to thank them, for giving me a great ride this year."

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