COLLEGE PARK — — When Maryland opened the season five months ago against defending national champion Kentucky at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., the Terps were full of the hype and hope that comes when many expect a team to find its way to the NCAA tournament.
After a down-to-the-buzzer loss to the Wildcats that preceded a school record-tying 13-game winning streak, Mark Turgeon's team lost its way. There were times last month when even a National Invitation Tournament bid seemed in doubt.
Maryland (25-12) has returned to New York this week to finish the season at Madison Square Garden, either with Tuesday's NIT semifinal against Iowa (24-12) or Thursday's championship game against Baylor or Brigham Young.
"We're totally different. We know how to coach our team now, our guys are confident, we feel good about ourselves," Turgeon said after practice Friday at Comcast Center. "We started in New York, ending in New York. Playing into April sounds crazy. It's almost been a six-month season for us. It's tiring just thinking about [it], but I think we're prepared for this."
The Terps are a much different team than they were even five weeks ago. After running out of steam toward the end of the regular season, the Terps have won five of their last six, including a victory over Duke in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and a win at Alabama in the NIT quarterfinals.
"My guys are much more confident because they had a really, really good road win against a team that won 13 in a row [at home]," Turgeon said, referring to Alabama. "You can see it in their eyes and the way they feel about themselves. They feel really good about themselves. Short-term, it's been tremendous for us. Long-term? I think I made statement, it was mid-February and I was like, 'I don't know if we're ever going to figure this out.'
"And that would have been a really long summer. Not that we've conquered the world or anything like that, but we have figured out how to win. We won in a tough road environment and we've won in a lot of different ways and we've beaten some good teams. It's going to make my summer a lot better knowing that the guys have figured it out and it's a lot easier to move forward with your program."
Junior point guard Pe'Shon Howard, whose recent reemergence as a starter has helped as much if not more from a defensive standpoint than on offense, said the performance against Kentucky "maybe reassured us that we could play with the top teams in the country" but that the Terps are much more ready for the spotlight than they were back in early November.
"We've kind of been through a lot of things," said Howard, who lost his starting job, his captain's role and was even suspended for his team's regular-season win over Duke. "We're a confident bunch of guys. I think you can see it. We believe in each other. We believe in our coaching staff regardless to outside opinion."
Said freshman forward Jake Layman: "We're playing to our potential now. I think we're a completely different team than from that first game against Kentucky. We have different styles of play now, different plays, different defenses. We've come a long way."
Along with a collective maturity that took a long time to find, several players have grown dramatically from that opening night.
Layman has gone from a "very nervous" freshman who seemed to have trouble breathing to a confident shooter whose back-to-back 3-pointers against Alabama proved crucial. Sophomore Nick Faust (City) still plays a little out of control at times, as do many of his teamates, but he seems to understand what Turgeon wants him to do at both ends of the floor.
But the biggest jump has been made by sophomore swingman Dez Wells. A late-summer transfer from Xavier, Wells learned only two days before the Kentucky game that the NCAA had granted him a waiver that allowed him to avoid having to sit out the season. Wells showed his athleticism against the Wildcats in short bursts, yet seemed to be moving too fast for his and his team's good.
Turgeon isn't surprised that it took Wells nearly the whole season to feel comfortable in his role as the team's leader and top scorer. He has averaged close to 18 points over his last 10 games.
"You got to understand where he came from with Xavier, he had two guys who totally dominated the ball and he'd shoot wide-open 3s or they'd throw lobs to him or he'd score on the break," Turgeon said. "He had to learn a new system. Took over a young team. He was a reluctant leader. He didn't want to lead. He got here in August. It was a lot on his plate. I think he has figured out what he can do with this team, and I think as a coaching staff we're figuring out the best way we can use him and hopefully we can have him for a couple of years, too."