Four months ago, Maryland men’s basketball coach Mark Turgeon began his eighth season trying to distance his team from the disappointment of a year ago, when his team didn’t receive a postseason bid after a second straight quick exit from the Big Ten tournament.
As the NCAA tournament begins this week, Turgeon is still answering some of the same questions he faced after last season, even though Maryland is 22-10 and in the field of 68 for the fourth time in five years.
The Terps, seeded sixth in the East Region, will play Thursday in Jacksonville, Fla., against No. 11 seed Belmont, which defeated Temple 81-70 in Tuesday’s First Four game.
Late-season slumps have plagued Turgeon for the second half of his eight-year tenure at Maryland.
After a 16-3 start this season (7-1 in the Big Ten), the Terps have gone 6-7, losing three of their past four games. The latest was in Maryland’s Big Ten tournament opener, a discouraging 69-61 defeat to a 13th-seeded Nebraska team with only six players on scholarship.
It was Maryland’s fifth straight postseason loss, the past four of which came to lower seeds.
The streak dates to a Sweet 16 loss to top-seeded Kansas in the 2015-16 NCAA tournament. It was followed by a quarterfinal loss to sixth-seeded Northwestern in the 2017 Big Ten tournament, a Round of 64 loss to 11th-seeded Xavier in the 2017 NCAA tournament, a second-round loss to ninth-seeded Wisconsin in the 2018 Big tournament and last week’s defeat to the Cornhuskers.
Nebraska was the lowest-seeded opponent to beat Maryland, and had also played a first-round game the night before.
“Unfortunately it gets pointed out. It’s today’s world,” Turgeon said Tuesday before the Terps headed to Jacksonville. “You hate that you didn’t take care of it in Chicago to get everyone to quit talking about it. But we didn’t, so hopefully we’ll do it Thursday. It’s the last of our worries. Trust me.
"It’s a new team, it’s a new year. We’re talented, and we’re excited. I can’t tell you how excited we are to be a part of this. The guys are really proud of themselves, what they accomplished. We feel like we got a fair seed, 6 is where we belong. … So we feel good about things.”
But Turgeon does give credence to the criticism of the late-season struggles.
“Every game is different, every win is different, every loss is different,” Turgeon said after the tournament bracket was revealed Sunday night. “The one thing I do is, [ask], ‘What did I do wrong? Why weren’t we ready to play in this game? Why couldn’t we flip the switch in the game?’
“I kept asking my assistants after the game, ‘What could I have done different?’ I don’t think we did anything different preparing. The thing that was really hard for me was that I thought we really practiced well, I thought we were really prepared. That was a real aberration for me.”
Turgeon looks at the past few years as most fans do — a disturbing trend of starting seasons strong only to fade at the end. Though there might be different reasons — a back-loaded schedule, injuries to key players, or for this year’s team, a lack of experience — all the late struggles seem to blend together for Turgeon.
“I think the Sweet 16 year it was schedule. I think this year was schedule — [four of five on the road late in the year], we might have gotten a little fatigued, young team,” he said. “Not making any excuses. We played Michigan twice in the last six, Penn State was playing as well as anybody. A lot of it’s schedule, to be quite honest with you.
“I’ve done it long enough where I can look back and say, ‘[OK], I’ve been a head coach 21 years, 11 years we finished strong, 10 we didn’t finish as strong as I’d like.’ I used to really pride myself on that and I still do. It’s just the way it is. You’re not going to look at 21 years. I look at the last five years because we were starting to build something.”
Turgeon could relate to something junior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. said immediately after the Nebraska game and again Sunday about not having won a postseason game since he came to Maryland.
“It eats at you if you’re a competitor,” Turgeon said. “When we lost to Xavier, I think I was 6-1 in first-round games — 6-2 is not bad in the first round of the NCAA tournament for a guy that was at Wichita State and Texas A&M. It’s what you do after that, what you’ve done for me lately. I get it, I totally get it. It’s not like we’re trying to lose games.”
The players are aware of the criticism directed at the team in general, with their 54-year-old coach taking the brunt of it.
Sophomore center Bruno Fernando, who along with Cowan was questioned for a lack of effort and intensity in both the loss to Nebraska as well as a 17-point thumping Feb. 27 at Penn State, said the team has become closer because of it.
“When we started the season, we approached it like, ‘We’re all we got,’ ” Fernando said Sunday. “Obviously we have fans and … they give us a lot of energy, but at the end of the day we’re the ones on the court playing. As long as we’re positive around each other, that’s all that matters.”
Freshman guard Eric Ayala, who has quickly emerged as one of the team’s leaders and spokesmen, immediately defended his coach in the dressing room at United Center on Thursday and put his quotes on social media afterwards.
Asked Tuesday why he felt compelled to do it in such a public forum, Ayala said, “Coach Turgeon has been a mentor. I look at him much bigger than just a coach. He’s always here, he comes ready to do his job and prepare us for life, not just basketball players.
“The lessons he teaches us on the court are things that we carry off the court. It makes us better as men as well as basketball players. He’s going to be the best coach he can be. He doesn’t go out there and shoot the ball. He doesn't go out there and turn the ball over.”
Turgeon said because of social media, it’s more difficult for his players to put blinders on than it is for him.
“I know it’s out there, [criticism] of me, and after the last game rightfully so, to be honest with you,” he said Sunday. “I’m a [grown] man, I can take that. It’s hard for the players because they read all of it. Their skin’s not as thick as mine is. They haven’t been through as many things as I have.”
Turgeon said he has spent a lot of time talking with his team collectively and individually since they returned from Chicago early Friday.
“You just communicate with them, that’s what you do,” Turgeon said. “I’m hoping when we land in Jacksonville it kind of hits you, ‘Wow, this is great, this is fun.’ I tell them all the time, there’ll be a lot of kids out there that will trade places with you right now to be in this tournament.
“You’ve got to understand. When we were going through [the Big Ten], it was a grind. And we’ve weathered that storm … and now it truly is a new season for us. We’ve had good practices. … We’re not that far off.”
Early in the season, after narrow losses to three other NCAA tournament teams — a five-point defeat to No. 1 seed Virginia at Xfinity Center, a two-point road loss to No. 3 seed Purdue and a four-point home defeat to No. 10 seed Seton Hall — Turgeon asked for fans and media to be patient.
At the time, Turgeon and his players suggested the Terps could be a dangerous team in March.
Asked Tuesday if the team is where he thought it would be, Turgeon hedged.
“We’ll see,” he said. “You’ve got in the back of your mind what happened the last game. We’ve practiced well. We’ve matured. … We’ve just got to make a few shots. I think that will help us. If we go out and make a few shots, early in the game, I think that will take a little bit of pressure off.
“As for as continuing to improve, practice the right way, have the right mentality, loving each other and caring about each other, it’s still there for us. It’s a grind, and I know every team in the country gets scrutinized, especially this time of year. You’re only as good as your last game.”
Ayala said he believes the Terps have improved despite the recent slump, and will have at least one more chance to back their words from early in the season.
“We’ve got all that potential and all that we thought we were going to be, we’ve got to show Thursday,” Ayala said. “It can’t be next year or next game. It could be our final game, so we’ve got to show people what we thought we could be.”