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Back in national spotlight, Maryland basketball coach Mark Turgeon tries to keep perspective

Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon talks with reporters during Big Ten Media Day at the Marriott O'Hare Hotel in Chicago.
Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon talks with reporters during Big Ten Media Day at the Marriott O'Hare Hotel in Chicago. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

In his previous four visits to Baltimore for the annual "College Season Tip-Off" luncheon to benefit the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, Maryland men's basketball coach Mark Turgeon would often have well-wishers come up to him to talk about his team.

The conversations typically didn't last that long since the Terps were barely on the radar, locally or nationally.

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It was different Monday, as Turgeon walked through the halls of the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront's banquet level. Suddenly, he was as sought-after as ESPN analyst Jay Bilas or Hall of Famers Gary Williams and Jim Calhoun.

Asked if he gets any greater sense of satisfaction with the added attention, Turgeon said, "It rolls off. Calhoun said it best, there's 12-to-20 teams that can win a national championship this year, maybe more. So, we're one of those teams.

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"It's good to be talked about that way, it's good to know going into a season that talent-wise, chemistry-wise, personality-wise you have a team that's one of those teams. … But what I would like in the future when we're a preseason top team, people aren't saying congratulations before it starts."

Bilas said the Terps chances this season are exciting because there doesn't seem to be a dominant team in college basketball, unlike last season when "you had Kentucky, Wisconsin, you had older teams, Duke was ridiculously talented.

"This is a year where there are really good teams, but nobody was great right out of the gate. We'll look back on it and say about someone, 'What a great team,' but during the year we're not going to say that."

Bilas said that he is not surprised to see the Terps back in the national spotlight under Turgeon.

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"I've told people since Mark got here how good he is," Bilas said. "Not that this is validation for that. I do think he's this good [because of the] consistency with which this program has been built under his leadership, the type of player that they're getting, as hard as they play."

Bilas said the addition of point guard Melo Trimble and the collective unselfishness of Turgeon's team has fast-forwarded the progress from a disappointing 17-15 season two years ago, to last season's 28-7 surprise, to a team picked among the favorites to win a national championship in April.

"The ball doesn't stick when Maryland plays, it's not guys catching the ball and worried they're not going to get it back," Bilas said. "You can see it and it's made a huge difference on both ends of the floor. It's fun to watch them play and I do think it's fun for them to play. They look like they're working hard and they're having more fun because of it."

Bilas said that the addition of Robert Carter Jr. and freshman Diamond Stone will certainly help strengthen what had been a weakness in the team's frontcourt.

"Stone does not have to be the man. If he went somewhere else, maybe he has to be the man right away," Bilas said. "That takes the pressure off him."

Turgeon said during a news conference before the luncheon that Stone was "improving faster than anyone on our team, but he had the furthest to go."

Villanova coach Jay Wright, who was one of the coaches to speak at Monday's luncheon, said that he is looking forward to scrimmaging the Terps on Saturday in Philadelphia.

"We've never had a scrimmage with two top 10 teams," Wright said. "This year for us, we have some young guys and for us to evaluate our young guys in that game, if you're going to be successful against Melo and those guys, you can be successful against anybody. I'm looking forward to it almost too much. I'm seeing things in practice and I just need this scrimmage to get here to figure it out."

It is a rematch of a scrimmage two years ago in College Park that reportedly ended with former Maryland star Dez Wells hitting a 3-pointer to win at the buzzer.

"It was such a bloodbath, both teams played so hard," Wright recalled Monday. "It was so competitive. One of the things Mark and I said after the last time was that people would pay good money to have seen that, it was such good basketball. Just high-level for that time of the year and it's funny, because nobody saw it. It was incredible."

Wright understands what Turgeon is going through, having rebuilt Villanova into a nationally ranked program after years of slippage. Unlike when Williams and Calhoun were coaching, there is as much to deal with off the court as on when you have a team being talked about as a championship contender.

"You can't insulate them [the players] at all, which makes coaching a different job now," Wright said. "You really have to address it. They're seeing it all, they're hearing it all, and it's 24/7. The time you get them, those 20 hours a week, you really have to address it. It's a challenge. It's not insurmountable, but it's a challenge."

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