There is a bit of irony in the way the Maryland men’s basketball team has won its past couple of games, coming out flat and then storming back to extend what is now an impressive five-game winning streak that includes victories over two ranked teams.
Coach Mark Turgeon has been criticized at times during his eight seasons at Maryland for the inability of some of his teams to improve over the course of the season — perhaps the best example being a 2016-17 season during which the talented Terps started 20-2 and lost seven of their last 11 games. So, Maryland fans can only hope the past two turnaround performances are a sign of good things to come.
No one can claim Turgeon isn’t a good coach. He’s a big-time recruiter, as evidenced by his most recent class, which ranked seventh in the nation and first in the Big Ten. He has reached the NCAA tournament eight times during his 21-year career, including three times at Maryland.
There are various reasons why several of his teams did not finish as strongly as they started. For one thing, most major conference teams pile up wins against lesser schools during the nonconference schedules before wading into conference play. It’s pretty tough to maintain that kind of outsized winning percentage in the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Big Ten.
In the particular case of Maryland, Turgeon has spent a significant portion of his time in College Park developing talented underclassmen, who — you would think — are more likely to wear down over the course of a difficult conference schedule with all the academic and logistical challenges that come with that.
This is one of Turgeon’s youngest teams, so there’s no way to prove at this point that the same thing won’t occur this season. But the performance of the Terps over the past few weeks is raising hope that something special might be happening in College Park.
When the Terps defeated No. 24 Nebraska on Jan. 2, the win snapped an 11-game losing streak against ranked teams that stretched over the past three seasons. When they beat Rutgers and a pretty good Minnesota team on the road on Jan. 5 and Jan. 8, it was the first time they had won back-to-back conference road games since they won five in a row during that 20-2 start two years ago.
It obviously begins and ends with junior Anthony Cowan Jr. and possibly-NBA-bound big man Bruno Fernando, who combined for 49 points Friday night to pull the Terps back into a game against No. 22 Indiana. It had appeared to be all but lost when the Terps scored just six points in the first nine minutes of play and fell behind by 14 against a strong defensive team.
There were times earlier this season when Cowan seemed to have regressed, but he has come on strong, particularly Friday night and in the similar road victory over Minnesota. Fernando is adjusting to being double-teamed on a regular basis and has improved tremendously year over year. He clearly is one of the top big men in college basketball and the Terps have another one in the making in 6-foot-10 freshman Jalen Smith.
“We have a lot of confidence in Anthony and we know we need him to do great things, and also have a ton of confidence in Bruno,’’ Turgeon said after Friday night’s game. “I loved the poise we played with. Anthony or Bruno had the ball in their hands almost every possession late in the game, and that’s just guys growing up and the younger guys understanding how we need to play and that takes a while to get where we’re going.
“We’re getting better. We’ve really improved since Christmas. We wouldn’t have won that game before Christmas. We wouldn’t have figured it out, but we’ve gotten a lot better.”
Turgeon isn’t one to make bold proclamations, but he said he saw something developing during the team’s summer tour of Italy that made him believe there might be greatness in this group.
“I’d like to be up a little bit more often at halftime moving forward and hopefully we can become a better first-half team,’’ he said. “But ever since I had this team in Italy this summer, there’s something about them I can’t explain. I think it’s about how much they care about each other … how much they love each other and how much they play for each other.”
Fernando said Friday it’s all about unselfishness and buying into the team concept, which can’t be easy for the players like himself who hear their names mentioned as possible first-round NBA draft picks.
“I think it’s the commitment everybody has,’’ he said. “Everybody is sacrificing their individual goals for the good of the team, and that’s really showing by the way we’re playing. I’m just trying to make sure everybody helps each other be successful on the court. We’re doing well with that. We’re getting the wins we’re getting and we’re moving in the direction we want to.”
Clearly no one is worried about what happened last year or the year before, but Turgeon knows that in the Big Ten, there is always a rough road ahead. The Terps host Wisconsin on Monday night at Xfinity Center and then hit the road to play No. 16 Ohio State on Friday and No. 6 Michigan State three days later.
“We’ve got a huge upside,’’ Turgeon said. “We talk about it in the locker room all the time. We’re in the middle of a serious grind right now. Not that there’s ever an easy game in our league, but we’re going every three days. So, we’re not able to practice as much, but we’re getting better in games. So that’s good for us, but I’d like to think how far we’ve come since Dec. 27, where can we be on Feb. 1, where can we be on Feb. 15.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.
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