COLLEGE PARK — One year ago, Mark Turgeon brought his Maryland basketball team to play in a tournament in Puerto Rico, where not even the swaying palm trees and balmy trade winds could make up for the coach's dissatisfaction with his players' efforts.
Turgeon, then in his first year with the Terps, was a portrait of distress, stamping his feet on the sideline and calling out his players for a lack of commitment. While tourists at his beachfront hotel sipped mojitos, Turgeon endured a kidney stone — a suitable metaphor for a trying season in which he often seemed mismatched with players he had inherited from Gary Williams.
A year later, it's hard to overstate how different it feels for Turgeon, whose Terps open the season Friday night against defending national champion Kentucky at the just-opened Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. Turgeon said he scheduled the game against old friend and Kentucky coach John Calipari because he wanted his up-and-coming Maryland program to experience the "bright lights" of a big game in a sparkling new venue.
With four freshmen and two eligible transfers — led by former Xavier swingman Dez Wells — Turgeon's team has undergone a makeover. It now seems to better reflect the former Kansas point guard's own feistiness and perfectionism.
"I want tough-minded kids that put the team first," Turgeon said in a recent interview in which he agreed to outline specific statistical goals for his team's upcoming season.
Most of the goals — particularly those related to defense and rebounding — went unmet last season as Maryland finished 17-15 and missed postseason play.
The Comcast Center suite in which Turgeon was interviewed has been newly decorated. It now has pictures not only of former top Terrapins, but of Turgeon's mentor Larry Brown and others who have influenced his career. It's further evidence that the coach has made the program more his own.
Although he rarely confided it, Turgeon did not feel good about last season's prospects as the year began. The Terps didn't yet resemble a Turgeon team.
Before arriving at Maryland, his Texas A&M teams had been known for defense. In his last season there, the Aggies ranked 19th in the nation in fewest points allowed and went 24-9.
"His values are pretty simple," Brown, now the coach at SMU, said after Turgeon was hired. "You play hard and you guard and you rebound like crazy and take good shots."
Brown, who coached Turgeon at Kansas while Calipari was a Jayhawks assistant, continued, "If you go in there and you don't play hard, he's not going to beg you. You won't play."
Last season, the Terps finished last in the Atlantic Coast Conference in average points allowed (70.7 per game). That's a statistic that makes Turgeon wince, and he resorted to periodically benching players — former guard Terrell Stoglin, for one — for not playing adequate defense.
This year's defense should be aided by bulk and depth. The Terps have added 6-foot-9 freshman Shaquille Cleare, who weighs about 270 pounds, and 6-foot-8 freshman Charles Mitchell, who weighs 262. There is also a new defensive-minded guard — freshman Seth Allen — who had five steals in the team's exhibition win over Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
The additions also include 6-8 freshman Jake Layman, 6-3 Albany transfer Logan Aronhalt, and Wells, who was one of the Atlantic 10's top freshman last season.
The NCAA initially ruled that Wells, a versatile, 6-foot-5 sophomore guard from Raleigh, N.C., would have to sit out a year after transferring from Xavier. But Maryland won its appeal this week seeking a waiver for Wells, who will be eligible to play against the Wildcats. Wells was expelled by Xavier after his freshman season following a sexual-assault allegation that a prosecutor said was unproven.
Wells "makes us a lot better," said junior guard Pe'Shon Howard, one of just four returning players who were part of last season's regular rotation.
With all the additions and a year for Turgeon and Maryland to acclimate to each other, "they're going to be physical, tough, [will] defend, and run on opportunity," said former Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg, now an ESPN analyst. "I think they'll be a team that won't beat themselves. We're all products of the people we worked for. He worked for Larry Brown and [other] coaches who are committed on the defensive end. And he's recruiting to his system."
Here, in Turgeon's own words, are key statistical goals for the season and an analysis of each:
** "We'd like our defensive field goal percentage to be under 40 percent. We didn't get that done last year."
Maryland opponents shot 42.8 percent last season, eighth in the ACC.
"I think we'll be better defensively," Howard said." We have the same principles but now we have more length, more depth. Guys will be able to grind out possessions longer now because they'll be more rested. We definitely have to be more physical. We're a little too nice right now."
** "We want our rebounding margin to be plus-six or seven a game average."
Last season, the Terps outrebounded opponents by an average of 1.9 per game.
"Obviously there are some games early in the year where we can out-rebound our opponent pretty good," Turgeon said, referring to a string of clearly winnable non-conference games.
It was in ACC games that Maryland surrendered costly offensive rebounds to larger teams such as North Carolina and Duke. In conference games, Maryland's rebounding margin was minus-0.2.
"We have a lot more bigs this season," senior forward James Padgett said. "[Center] Alex [Len] learns to play against big bodies every day [in practice], and I think it helps his game out."
** "We need to improve our assists-to-turnovers ratio."
Last season, Maryland had 339 assists and 425 turnovers, a ratio of 0.8 that put the Terps in a four-way tie for last in the ACC.
"We were just awful at that — it's the worst I've ever coached last year." Turgeon said. "We're still throwing the ball all over the gym [this preseason] because we're trying to play faster. Hopefully the turnovers will come down. I'd love to be two-to-one assists to turnovers as a team."
** "We try to make more free throws than our opponents shoot."
Last season, Maryland made more free throws than its opponents — 539 to 452 — and shot 66.4 percent from the line. But the Terps didn't achieve Turgeon's goal of converting more foul shots than the other team attempted (624).
Turgeon said getting to the foul line consistently means he has the right kind of team — a Turgeon team.
"It means we're being aggressive," he said.