Maryland Terps basketball coach Mark Turgeon talks about facing the Purdue Boilermakers. (Baltimore Sun video)
COLLEGE PARK — The day after his Maryland men's basketball team blew a late double-digit lead to lose at home to Nebraska, Mark Turgeon brought his players together to talk about what happened.
Given the makeup of the team, with three freshmen in the starting lineup, Turgeon knew that how the Terps responded to the disappointing loss could ultimately determine the kind of season they would have.
"We learned a lot and I think we've gotten a lot better from that game," Turgeon said after practice Thursday. "We had to. We were 1-1 [in the Big Ten] with five of the next seven on the road. We had to figure it out pretty quickly, and we did."
Going into Saturday's home against No. 23 Purdue (18-5, 7-3 Big Ten), No. 17 Maryland (20-2, 8-1) is off to its best start in school history and has won seven straight conference games to equal its hottest streak against league foes since joining the Big Ten two years ago.
Turgeon told the team after the 77-71 win at Ohio State on Tuesday that it had made history.
"They didn't really care," Turgeon said. "It's not that big to them. They were more worried about trying to beat Purdue and whoever we play after that. They've really stayed humble and stayed focused. It's pretty exciting. … For the most part, guys have answered the bell."
If not for what happened on New Year's Day — when the Terps lost a 13-point lead in the last 6 ½ minutes and watched the Cornhuskers score the last 14 points to win, 67-65 — Turgeon said he doesn't believe Maryland would be where it is now.
"I don't think we would be 8-1 if we had beat Nebraska," he said. "I think that game really helped us because of a lot of things that happened in the game. It's helped us stay focused and really prepare for each and every game."
Turgeon said in the six days between the Nebraska game and the Terps' first conference road game at Michigan, he alternated between toughening his young team mentally without wearing it out physically.
"I don't think physically it was any harder than what we were doing. It was just our preparation," Turgeon said. "If we went an hour and 15 [minutes], an hour and a half before, we still went the same amount. Just the way we approached it was better."
Freshman forward Justin Jackson, who along with fellow freshman Kevin Huerter has emerged as one of the most versatile players in the Big Ten, said Turgeon's tone and message didn't change much in the aftermath of the Nebraska loss.
"Coach has always been really vocal about defense and rebounding and being tough. I guess he just reiterated it a little bit more," Jackson said Friday.
It is not just the recent ascension of Jackson and Huerter, who have teamed with freshman point guard Anthony Cowan to give star junior guard Melo Trimble a more willing supporting cast than he had last season.
It is also the development of the bench, and the willingness of upperclassmen — such as juniors Jared Nickens and Jaylen Brantley and graduate transfer L.G. Gill — to act as on-court backups and off-court mentors to what might go down as the program's most successful freshman class since Joe Smith and Keith Booth in 1993-94.
"We are having fun as a team and also have good chemistry both on and off the floor," said Trimble, who is seemingly revived after being worn down last season by a nagging hamstring injury while trying to be a leader with older, more experienced players.
Trimble sees a difference in Turgeon, too.
"Coach is enjoying this team and we are feeding off his energy," Trimble said recently. "We want to match his energy at practice and at shootaround."
While the statistics might not indicate the Terps are a more cohesive team this year than they were a year ago — Maryland actually shot better last season — their 6-0 road record (5-0 in the Big Ten) is a pretty good indicator of the on-court chemistry.
Turgeon said he wasn't initially sure how it was going to fit together. It was one of the reasons he has the full allotment of 13 scholarship players for the first time since he came to Maryland in 2011.
"There's a lot of good pieces. That's good," he said. "As a coach, you try to put a lot of good pieces on your roster and you try to get them to fit together. So far, this team has really fit together."
While two freshmen had not started together in a season opener for the Terps since Smith and Booth until Cowan and Huerter did it against American — Jackson joined the starting lineup after scoring 17 points off the bench against Georgetown in the second game — Turgeon was undeterred.
"I wasn't worried about it at all. My biggest concern was whether they could sustain it, and they've been able to sustain it for the most part, up until this point," Turgeon said. "We've been able to keep them fresh, our bench has gotten better. We're getting healthier. Guys have stepped up, like Ivan Bender and Jaylen Brantley, that weren't a big part of last year's team."
A year after many questioned Turgeon's in-game coaching amid a disappointing end to the regular season, with a team that started ranked No. 3 in the country, his players have helped silence the criticism and make him a Big Ten Coach of the Year candidate.
"Coach takes pride in game-planning game by game and making adjustments within games. That's the way he always wants to coach," longtime assistant Dustin Clark said Friday. "He believes in giving our guys the best tactical advantage even if it means changing things, not always doing things the same way. … This year, our guys have been able to do that."
As for last season, which ended with a 27-9 record (12-6 Big Ten) and the school's first Sweet 16 appearance since 2003, Turgeon said, "I don't regret anything about last year's team, except that Dion [Wiley] got hurt [missing the season with a torn meniscus]. I thought last year's team was terrific."
If Turgeon has done anything differently, it's that he has given these Terps more down time than in the past. Rather than practice for two days before a game, Turgeon has often let one suffice.
"Every year is different, every team is different," Turgeon said. "By the way we've run practice all year, sometimes we're better when we gave them more time off, even if we practice a little bit less. We gave them four or five days off at Christmas. I was a nervous wreck for the Illinois game [at home on Dec. 27]."
The light mood at shootarounds has also prevailed, highlighted by the wild celebration that followed Turgeon hitting a halfcourt shot the night before Tuesday's win at Ohio State. He promised the team a chocolate cake if he made one; on Thursday, Ann Turgeon delivered one to Xfinity Center.
When the Terps won their Big Ten opener on Dec. 27 by 25 points, Turgeon recalled thinking, "Maybe this stuff [all the practices] is a little bit overrated. I felt we were tired in the Rutgers game [on Jan. 24], we had [a game] Saturday, Tuesday on the road, so I gave them two days off. I might not have done that in the past."
In the middle of what Turgeon calls the "dog days" of the season — the weeks leading up to the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments — the coach, who will turn 52 on Sunday, has to figure out how to keep his team as fresh, productive and motivated as it seems to have been for more than a month.
"You've got to keep that rhythm," he said. "You've got to figure it out. That's what you've got to do with each team. That's what you get paid to do: figure it out. So far with this team, we've done that. We don't have any byes left, so we'll see what happens down the stretch."
Turgeon concedes that his team has surprised him.
"Probably the most surprising is what we've done on the road," Turgeon said before practice Friday. "To be 5-0 on the road [in conference games] is really hard. But with that, every time we tip off, I think we're going to win the game and I think our guys believe that. I keep saying, the exciting part for me is I think we can get a lot better."