CHICAGO — In his nine seasons at Maryland, Mark Turgeon has almost always found a reason to like the men’s basketball team he was coaching that particular year. This year’s team could turn out to be one of his favorites — and one of his best.
Speaking Wednesday at Big Ten media day, Turgeon said he and his players welcome the expectations heaped on the Terps, who were picked in the league’s media poll to finish second behind Michigan State and have been mentioned as a potential Final Four team.
“We love it, we’re excited,” Turgeon said. “Our guys only know one way, and that’s to work hard. Our culture is terrific right now. Our guys are in the gym early, they’re in the gym late. In the gym with me during the day. They’re embracing it, we’re all embracing it. We want more. We want to be great.
“We know we have a good team. If we didn’t think we were good and we were picked second, we’d be worried.”
Turgeon was hesitant to compare this year’s team with the 2015-16 team that reached the Sweet 16, but acknowledged that while this Terps team isn’t as experienced, it has more depth.
“Our starting five on the Sweet 16 team was really, really good,” Turgeon said. “I’m hoping this team is special because of its depth. We’re younger than that team. ”We had Rasheed Sulaimon, who was a fourth-year senior, Robert Carter was a fourth-year junior, [Melo] Trimble was a third-year guy. We were older. Jake Layman was a senior
“That starting five was old. This starting five will have Anthony Cowan and probably Darryl Morsell, and the rest will be underclassmen. It’s a little different in the starting five, but we have a nice team.”
Turgeon said all of his players have improved individually from last season, particularly a sophomore class of five players who as freshmen were among the team’s top eight. Maryland finished 23-11 overall in 2018-19, including 13-7 in the Big Ten. A year after not playing in the postseason, the Terps lost to LSU in the second round of the NCAA tournament, 69-67, on a last-second shot.
Asked which of the sophomores has made the biggest jump, Turgeon had trouble giving an answer. At least a short one.
“That’s a really hard question because they’ve all made a big jump,” Turgeon said. “This summer I thought it was Aaron Wiggins. He made a huge jump. He was working out like four times a day. He really got better. We need him to be more aggressive [on] offense for us to take the next step.
“Eric Ayala totally changed his body from when he came in. I’m not sure Eric could dunk when we got him, now he’s reverse-dunking, double-pumping on dunks. He’s gotten more athletic. His shot’s even gotten better. I didn’t think he was a very good shooter when we signed him, now he’s one of the better shooters I’ve ever coached. He’s become a better defender.
“Ricky Lindo’s put on 30 pounds from August going into his freshman year until now. Ricky just turned 19 last week, very young. He’s improved tremendously, he’s just got to get more confident. He’s an unbelievable defender. He can go 1 through 5 for us [to defend every position]. He guarded [Ethan] Happ sometimes and to switch him on ball screens and be on the point guard. He’s special for us.
“Jalen [Smith] has put on 35 pounds since he’s been here, continues to get better. … Serrel [Smith Jr.] continues to get better offensively for us. They’ve all gotten better, which is exciting.”
Turgeon joked that Jalen Smith, who along with Cowan was named Wednesday to the preseason All-Big Ten team, has a new nickname.
“We don’t call him ‘Stix’ anymore, we call him ‘Logs,’ ” Turgeon said of the former Mount Saint Joseph star. “He’s gotten so much bigger. He never has a shirt on anymore. He’s always trying to show his upper body off. But Stix — Logs — has really worked hard to expand his game. He’s become a much better perimeter defender. We’ve worked on everything. He had a terrific freshman year. I think with Jalen, we just want more consistency and that’s what he wants too and I think he should be able to do that this year.”
Turgeon talks ‘Fair Pay to Play Act’
The signing this week of California’s “Fair Pay to Play Act," which in 2023 will allow the state’s college athletes to be compensated for their names, images and likenesses, was a big topic of conversation at media day.
Calling it “a very complex issue” Turgeon said that he can relate to what his players have gone through to his own college career in the mid-1980s at the University of Kansas.
“As a coach, you always want more for your student-athlete,” Turgeon said. “I remember when I played, missing meals and not having enough money because you didn’t have time for a job. It’s a little different today than it was then. You want them to be comfortable. There’s a lot of pressure on them.
“They do a lot of great things for our university, especially my kids. It’ll be interesting to see what happens. I think what we all want is just an even playing field when it’s all said and done. I know it’s going to be a process, and so it’ll be interesting to see what happens over the next three or four years.”
Respect for Turgeon
Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said the fact that Turgeon is not as respected locally as he is nationally is unfair, considering that the Terps have only been in the Big Ten since 2014-15.
“I’ve got an insane amount of respect for what he does,” Pitino said Wednesday. “Not only is he a great coach, he wins, his players get better, he recruits at a high level. It’s silly. How many years has Maryland been in the Big Ten? It’s time to embrace them as a powerhouse. It’s a great basketball school and they’re a terrific program.”