COLLEGE PARK — In 22 seasons as a Division I men’s basketball coach, Mark Turgeon has made his share of passionate, halftime speeches.
What happened at halftime during Maryland’s game at Northwestern on Jan. 21 might have been different.
Cramped inside the visitor’s locker room at Welsh-Ryan Arena, the then-No. 17 Terps were facing their fourth straight Big Ten road loss. Maryland appeared headed to its worst defeat in four years, down 14 points to the league’s last-place team.
“We were playing like a shadow of ourselves,” Turgeon recalled Wednesday. “We were so out of it that first half I couldn’t even believe it was our team. It was like, ‘OK, this is enough.’ And I was beyond frustrated. Luckily for me, it worked. They played loose and we got our offense going, which actually got our defense going.”
After diagramming on a whiteboard what he wanted his players to do on the defensive end — the Wildcats had scored first-half 40 points and were shooting 60% from the field — Turgeon started talking about an offense that missed its first seven shots, six of them 3-pointers. Things had barely improved by halftime.
“No plays,” he told his team. “We’re at the park. We’re at the park. We’re running.”
After offering a couple of strategical changes, Turgeon added, “We’re running on EVERYTHING. Don’t start [over]thinking — PLAY! But we’ve got to take good shots. ... I don’t know what it is … But we’ve got to figure this out.
“It’s January-whatever-it is. We’ve got two months left in the season. We’ve got to figure it out. And maybe it starts right here. Guys, I’m just begging you. Lock in on ... defense. At the first timeout, we can cut it to 10. At the second timeout, we can cut it to five. And then it’s our game.”
Turgeon ended his nearly five-minute speech with one more plea.
“These four years go so fast,” he said, his voice raspy and his words choking with emotion. “It’s going to be over, so don’t waste it. GOT ME!! WE’RE WASTING IT!”
Becoming road warriors
Based on what the now-No. 15 Terps have done since leaving their locker room in Evanston, Illinois, it appears that the changes Turgeon has made to the offense — essentially playing with a traditional post player for no more than a few possessions — has helped his team regain its mojo.
“His energy was contagious when he came in that locker room at halftime,” sophomore wing Aaron Wiggins said before practice Wednesday. “He told us he wanted us to play more loose, more confident, more comfortable. Him giving that message to us, everybody just wanted to go out there and win.”
It also appears that his players have heeded his words better than some of his recent Maryland teams.
“I’ve had to give that speech a lot, whether it’s after a loss or whatever. I’ve had speeches that hopefully helped turn around a season,” Turgeon said. “It’s the buy-in that matters. It’s turned around the last game and a half. We’ll see.”
Said Wiggins: “I’ve seen it before. It’s a difference in how our team responded. This year, we just showed that we understood what he wanted. Each of us have that same passion, wanting to win games. Our response was completely different from times before.”
Going into Thursday’s home game against No. 18 Iowa (15-5, 6-3) — a team that beat the Terps, 67-49, in Iowa City on Jan. 10 to start a five-game winning streak — Maryland (16-4, 6-3) has won three straight, including back-to-back road wins at Northwestern and Indiana.
Recently, the Terps finally began to resemble the team that dominated Marquette and Notre Dame in back-to-back 21-point wins in December to get to No. 3 in the AP poll.
“We don’t try to get too high or get too low," Turgeon said. "Unfortunately in today’s world, you lose a game and the world is coming to an end. You win, and it’s the greatest thing ever. We try to stay even keel and we just try to get better.”
Given the expectations going into the season, when the Terps were ranked No. 7, the pressure was clearly on Turgeon to produce better results, particularly in the postseason. There has been much discussion among fans if another late-season collapse could cost Turgeon his $2.7 million a year job.
“We’ve got a lot of fight in us," Turgeon said. "I think it’s how you handle the ups and down of this Big Ten, and handle it the right way. There’s some really good teams in this league that are under .500 in our league that are good enough to get to a Final Four. I know we’ll be prepared at the end of the year because of the schedule we’ve played.”
Assistant coach Matt Brady said after practice Tuesday that much of this season’s inconsistencies — particularly with 3-point shooting — have to do with confidence.
“This group’s confidence has wavered, even given the fact that we have a really good record,” Brady said. “It seems unusual, but we have a lot of young guys that need as much encouragement as they do a stern talking-to. I felt Coach did a terrific job at Northwestern having a pulse on our team.”
Recognizing that the Terps have played well after slow starts in many games, Turgeon’s halftime speech was what the coaching staff hopes was a turning point.
“It was more about confidence and letting them play more free,” Brady said.
What happened Sunday in Bloomington should help that confidence grow.
After a 14-point lead in the first half was chopped to nine at halftime, the Terps fell behind by six with a little over 2½ minutes left. Maryland scored the last seven points to win at Assembly Hall, 77-76, for the first time since joining the Big Ten.
“We know when we play to the best of our abilities, we’re one of the top teams in the country,” junior guard Darryl Morsell said Wednesday. “Getting a road win at Assembly Hall with the crowd against us, and how we won, is definitely a confidence builder. It was great for us.”
Morsell said that the halftime speech at Northwestern was a little different than others he had heard. It also helped that the players had spoken among themselves for a few minutes before Turgeon and his assistants entered the room, Morsell said.
“I think it was at a different level,” Morsell said. “I’ve seen a lot of emotions in the players, just the leaders being more vocal. I was trying to be vocal. Anthony [Cowan Jr.] was being more vocal. The first half there, nobody was doing anything. We were just going through the motions. It was really a reality check for us, and we needed it.”
Brady said that the best teams he’s been around have been dominated by seniors, including a Saint Joseph’s squad that won its first 27 games in 2003-04 and finished 30-2 after losing to Oklahoma State in the Elite Eight. Cowan is the only senior who plays regularly for the Terps.
“Some of the guys have only done it for one year, and they hadn’t played at Indiana,” Brady said. “Every environment these guys play in is an opportunity to get better, but that doesn’t mean they’ve been successful. They’re still young basketball players at the college level. There’s clearly a learning curve.
“Just because [sophomore] Jalen Smith is physically gifted doesn’t mean he’s very confident. He’s in a completely different role [as a center]. It’s a role that’s new to him. We can’t win consistently unless he plays well. That was not the case last year. We could win games last year when he didn’t play well.”
Turgeon realizes that coaching players through shooting slumps (as happened with Wiggins) or simply giving players the confidence to take shots (as has been the case with sophomore forward Ricky Lindo Jr.) can lead to dysfunction with the other four players on the floor.
“That’s the hard part,” Turgeon said. “When we were all struggling a little bit, and it was just one game since Christmas [at Iowa], it affected us as a team. Our guys get it, our guys know how important each player is to it, our guys respect each other. As a coach, I believe in our guys, they know I believe in them.
“If I didn’t believe in Wiggs, I would have taken him off the floor after he missed those other two [3-pointers before hitting one with 55 seconds left]. I looked him in the eye and I said, ‘You’re going to make your next one,’ and he did.”
Turgeon said that he’s had to change his approach from when he was a first-time head coach working at Jacksonville State, and later at Wichita State and Texas A&M.
“Today’s world is a lot different and the things they go through,” he said. “You really have to constantly coach ‘em up and build them up and be positive but not make them think they’re something special.”
Considering that Maryland has trailed at halftime in eight games — including five of nine in the Big Ten — Turgeon has had plenty of practice for what transpired at Northwestern.
“There’s been a lot of halftime speeches this year — some good, some bad,” he said. “That one the guys bought into it. We were trending toward doing things that way, I think they just kind of bought in at halftime. We made a couple of shots and it gave them confidence.”
No. 18 Iowa@No. 15 Maryland
Thursday, 8:30 p.m.
TV: Big Ten Network
Radio: 105.7 FM, 980 AM