COLLEGE PARK — For most of his first eight seasons at Maryland, men’s basketball coach Mark Turgeon has been maligned for his team’s lack of offensive fluidity and defensive ingenuity.
During the second half of Turgeon’s tenure, the Terps seemed stuck in a pick-and-roll offense that was dominated — sometimes to excess — by Melo Trimble and then Anthony Cowan Jr.
While Maryland’s man-to-man defense usually forced opponents to shoot at a low percentage, it rarely created enough turnovers to keep up with the high number the offense committed.
It contributed, at least in part, to Maryland fading late in games. The familiarity opposing coaches had for the way Turgeon game planned made it easier to figure the Terps out.
Five games into the 2019-20 season, a team now ranked No. 5 in the country barely resembles any of its predecessors since Turgeon took over.
It’s not just that Maryland is deeper, more athletic and more talented; the Terps are less predictable. At a school that has sometimes had trouble attracting sellout crowds, Turgeon’s team is more fun to watch.
“It’s not to say they haven’t been athletic before, but they just have more versatility, I think,” said longtime college basketball analyst Dan Bonner, who worked back-to-back games against Fairfield and George Mason in College Park. “They can play different combinations of lineups. They can get out and press you. They can play you in the half-court. Once they start shooting the ball, and they will because they have guys that can shoot it, and they grow throughout the season, they become an exceedingly dangerous group."
Going into Thursday’s game against Temple in the opening round of the Orlando Invitational at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, the Terps are also playing faster on offense and are much more disruptive on defense.
“I feel like we try to run every chance we get,” junior guard Darryl Morsell said recently. “The change in our defense is to throw the offenses off so they don’t get used to anything. Defense definitely helps our transition [offense], but it also promotes guarding the ball.”
Said Turgeon: “We’re running better than we’ve ever run. It’s helped our transition defensively. Really just pushing the ball more. … The bottom line’s winning.”
While statistically Maryland is still not as explosive offensively and as suffocating on defense as many teams in the country, Turgeon is changing his offensive and defensive sets with more regularity than ever before. Though the competition to date has something to do with it, the Terps are averaging 81.6 points a game despite making just 27.8% of their 3-point shots (294th in the country) and 69.5% of their free throws (116th).
A team that has lost more than its share of games because of a high turnover rate, Maryland is averaging fewer turnovers than in recent years while playing faster.
The Terps rank 15th in overall turnovers compared with 173rd last season. According to KenPom.com, they are 35th in average time of possession at 15.4 seconds, the shortest since Turgeon took over in 2011 and down more than three seconds a possession compared with a year ago, when Maryland’s 18.6 seconds (300th) was the most since Turgeon replaced future Hall of Famer Gary Williams.
Defensively, Maryland is forcing 16 turnovers a game, nearly seven more than it did last season. Opposing teams are also shooting just 36.5% from the field, the lowest figure the Terps have surrendered under Turgeon.
Being less predictable could help Maryland win its first Big Ten regular season or conference tournament title, and make perhaps a longer run come March. The Terps have advanced to the NCAA tournament Sweet 16 just once in four tries in the past five years.
Asked if his apparent change in philosophy has to do with the personnel on this year’s team, or whether he has dramatically altered his approach to coaching, Turgeon said recently that it’s a little of both.
“I’ve always wanted to change my defenses,” he said. “Last year, we practiced a lot of different defenses, but couldn’t get good in any of them. Last year we said, ‘We’ve got five freshmen, OK let’s get good at one defense.'
“Now we became pretty good at our zone as the year went on. Now I’ve got veteran guys and actually my young guys [the four freshmen] are smart. It allows us to do this.”
Morsell, perhaps the team’s best on-the-ball defender since he arrived from Mount Saint Joseph, said the ability of Maryland’s guards to cover bigger players and the team’s big men to get out on the floor to switch on ball screens and stay on smaller opponents allows Turgeon to play multiple defenses.
“We can throw a lot of different things at teams,” Morsell said. “When you switch and teams run plays, you really don’t have to practice [against] their plays, you just guard the ball straight, so it’s a good thing.”
Asked if this sudden change of approach by Turgeon surprises him, Morsell smiled.
“It’s definitely different,” Morsell said. “It’s something that might help us down the road, so I enjoy it.”
Turgeon said that he has always had “five or six” different defenses that he learned playing at Kansas and later coaching under Larry Brown for a year in the NBA, as well as coaching under Roy Williams with the Jayhawks.
As he started to install various defenses over the summer and then in preseason practices, Turgeon said he would gauge how much his players — particularly the freshmen — grasped them.
“So if I start putting stuff in and the guys look at me like I’m crazy, then I stop,” he said. “But every time I add something, the guys love it and they get excited, and that excites me, then we get better because of it.”
Longtime ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who has often said that he believes Turgeon has been criticized unfairly about his coaching acumen, said in an interview before the season began that the reason for the 55-year-old coach’s newfound philosophy might actually be simple to explain.
“The stuff he’s talking about now — playing some different defenses, big lineup, small lineup, press, don’t press — isn’t because he’s going to more coaching clinics; he’s got a team that can actually do it,” Bilas said in a telephone interview. “It’s his personnel that’s leading toward this.
“He’s a confident guy, he’s done it before. He’s had good teams at Wichita State and Texas A&M and all that. He played at Kansas, coached at Kansas, coached at Oregon. He’s been around the block. He knows what he’s doing. It’s important for any coach to win.”
Along with a 1-3-1 zone defense that has suddenly become a staple for the Terps after Turgeon’s previous teams used it mostly out of desperation — most recently a variation of it after falling behind against LSU in the second round of last year’s NCAA tournament — Maryland is also using multiple presses to speed up and exasperate the opposition.
“I think our length kind of scares a lot of teams,” sophomore wing Aaron Wiggins said recently. “You can see how composed teams are when we get into our press … If you see they’re uncomfortable in the situations, we apply more pressure.”
Even when Turgeon goes back to the man-to-man that his teams have played nearly exclusively since he came to College Park, the Terps are forcing turnovers, something that was a rarity in recent years.
“There’s a lot of length that we have, and we get our hands on a lot more balls because of that,” Turgeon said. “We’ll make a mistake, which you’ll normally do this time of year, and our length has covered up for it.”
It will be interesting to see how much the Terps can run playing three games in four days, as they will do in Orlando, and how often Turgeon changes defenses when opponents will be scouting Maryland daily and from the proximity of the press table.
“We’ll play any way anybody wants to play. If we have to win 52-50, we’ll figure out a way,” Turgeon said last week. “If it’s 90-80, we’ll figure that out. We’re getting more equipped for that."
No. 5 Maryland vs. Temple
Thursday, 11 a.m.
Radio: 105.7 FM, 980 AM