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As Mark Turgeon enters 10th season with Maryland men’s basketball, much has changed — and much is still the same

Maryland men’s basketball coach Mark Turgeon stood on the Xfinity Center court on March 8, celebrating the program’s first regular-season Big Ten title, and offered an honest reaction to one of his greatest coaching accomplishments.

“Does anybody see the thousand-pound gorilla that was on my back that left, not here anymore?” Turgeon exclaimed to the crowd.

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It was a raw but revealing and genuine look into the psyche of a man who had taken his share of criticism over the years.

As he prepares for a new season — one that comes months after the coronavirus pandemic stymied an opportunity for him to build on that regular-season title — and his 10th in College Park, Turgeon’s tenure is one best described as polarizing.

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The feats are easy to point out. Across nine seasons, Turgeon has compiled a .673 winning percentage and brought in four top-20 recruiting classes. He’s the second-fastest Maryland coach to 200 wins, only behind Charles “Lefty” Driesell.

The 2019 season would have given him a fifth appearance in the NCAA tournament and he’s recorded five top-five finishes in the Big Ten, including clinching a share of the regular-season title last season.

Turgeon, who in 2016 signed an extension through the 2022-23 season, has steered a program that had spent six decades in the ACC into the Big Ten and cemented it as one of the league’s most competitive over the past six years.

But a handful of disappointing flameouts in both conference and tournament play have at times overshadowed promising regular-season finishes.

Turgeon is aware as any person of the opportunity that the 2020 tournament had to alter perceptions of him, a player like then-senior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. and the program as a whole.

“We’ll never get over it. I’ve been doing this a long time and that was one of my top three or four teams I’ve coached,” Turgeon said in a recent phone interview. “Maybe not as talented as some others but just really together and I thought the NCAA tournament was wide open. I don’t think there was a clear favorite so we could have lost in the first round but we’ll never get over it. … We’ll be talking about it 30 years from now when we get together.”

Turgeon did express appreciation that, in October, members of that team were able to gather one final time for a ring ceremony.

But in the weeks and months that followed the disappointment of a shortened season that creates a lifetime of “what-ifs,” Turgeon had to turn his attention to the next season. For him, that meant attempting to reconstruct a roster that had been thinned by the departures of Cowan and forward Jalen Smith, who was recently selected No. 10 overall in the NBA draft, along with an exodus of transfers.

The effort, all conducted from his home as the pandemic’s first wave surged and prevented in-person recruiting trips, had varying degrees of success. The Terps struck out on some of the higher-profile transfers but were able to land former Alabama big man Galin Smith and former Boston College forward Jairus Hamilton, two experienced frontcourt players who are expected to contribute immediately.

Maryland was able to sign a trio of four-star recruits in the Class of 2021, a borderline top-20 haul that should replenish the roster in a year.

But in a year for the country, sports included, that has been marred by the pandemic and protests against police brutality and racial injustice, Turgeon’s most impactful work might have come away from the court.

As social unrest swept the nation after the death of George Floyd, Turgeon was one of the more vocal in college basketball as a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement.

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He organized a Zoom call with the team and witnessed firsthand the emotional toll that the state of affairs in the country had taken on his players.

Turgeon said he spent the new few weeks reading, watching videos and taking in as much knowledge of the country’s history of racism so that he could best understand his players as they unloaded their thoughts and shared their experiences with inequality.

With help from Donnell Jones, Maryland’s character coach and team chaplain, the team took part in exercises that served as a “safe space” for everyone involved.

It was a fruitful experience for a team that lost crucial time in the offseason to welcome multiple newcomers into the program but also eased the group of young men and empowered them as more college athletes speak out regarding social issues.

“Initially it was Coach Turgeon’s idea to ask the team about it,” senior guard Darryl Morsell said. “At that point, we had our team but we didn’t know each other as a team. It was definitely Coach Turgeon’s idea to proctor the Zooms and I think that helped us gain a better understanding of everybody on the team and just gain a different level of respect. Because before I even met some of these guys, I kind of knew what type of individuals they were, what kind of character they had. And I think that goes a long way in us having success.”

“It says a lot about him as a person,” said assistant coach Orlando “Bino” Ranson, who has been on staff for the duration of Turgeon’s tenure. “Coach Turgeon is a person who cares. He cares about his players, he cares about the coaches, he cares about the university. To see him step out and be vocal about all the injustices that have been taking place, it just shows who he is.”

At Maryland’s media day in early November, conducted through video conference calls, Turgeon offered a fair assessment of the team that will take the court for the first time Wednesday afternoon at Xfinity Center against Old Dominion. It’s one with a strong core of returning players, but bereft of the top-level talent from last season or his 2015 team, which advanced to the Sweet 16.

Just as Turgeon foreshadowed in the months before, his team landed in the bottom half of the Big Ten media preseason poll.

So what, if any, proverbial primate accompanies him for the 2020 season and in the future?

“To be honest, I don’t,” Turgeon said when asked if he takes time to contemplate his past decade in College Park. “I’m glad I’m still here because I love being the coach at Maryland. It was a tough beginning for me but I feel like the last six or seven years, we’ve been a pretty good basketball program a lot of that time. I know a lot of people say this but I think the best is still yet to come for us. We made a huge jump last season, getting a championship in, I thought, the best league in the country. Every year is the same to me. I just try to do the best job I can and see what happens.”

Season opener

OLD DOMINION@MARYLAND

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Wednesday, 2 p.m.

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Video: Big Ten Network Plus

Radio: 105.7 FM, 1300 AM

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