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Seeking bounce-back season, Mark Turgeon is confident in his Terps and himself

More than eight months later, the memory remains of the way the Maryland men’s basketball team exited the court at Xfinity Center for its final home game last season.

Many in the crowd that remained after the Terps fell behind No. 17 Michigan by 30 points at halftime booed with more intensity as the buzzer sounded than Maryland had played with that afternoon.

It was pent-up frustration, much of it directed at coach Mark Turgeon.

Less than a week later, a disappointing 19-13 season ended with a botched inbounds play sealing a down-to-the-wire defeat to Wisconsin in the first round of the Big Ten tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Though distracted the past few months by the tragedy and turmoil that has enveloped the football team, the athletic program and the university administration, Maryland fans have not forgotten last basketball season.

Nor has Turgeon after a season that ended with the Terps not making the NCAA tournament — or any tournament for that matter — for the first time in four years. But the pressure Turgeon feels now is mostly self-imposed.

“I know they want us to win every game, but no one wants to win every game more than I do,” Turgeon, whose $2.7 million annual contract runs out in 2022-23, said at media day last month. “I get it, I understand; that’s why I took the job. I think until the day I retire here, people are going to be critical of me.

“It’s the nature of the beast. … It’s our profession. To me it’s about doing everything you can to make your program the best every year. Sometimes you miscalculate [the talent on the team], and we might have done that a little bit [last year].”

Entering his eighth season with the Terps — Maryland now officially passing Wichita State as the longest tenure of Turgeon’s coaching career — the man who replaced since-elected Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer Gary Williams in the spring of 2011 is not blind to the notion that the program has lost some luster, not to mention fans.

It is why, going into Tuesday night’s opening game against Delaware, Turgeon is hoping to fill at least the student section at Xfinity Center. Toward that goal, Turgeon invited students to an open practice Thursday night, handing out copies of his practice plan.

While he jokes that the students came more for the pizza than for the practice, Turgeon said with his typical bluntness: “We’ve had three of the last four years have been really good. It’s not like we won nine games last year; we won 19. We’re disappointed.

“With that said, I want to get the students engaged with this team because I think they’re going to enjoy this team. … We’ll see if word spreads. I would love them to jump on tomorrow night.”

It is also why he recently paid homage to former longtime Maryland coach Lefty Driesell, newly inducted into the Naismith Hall, who was credited with starting Midnight Madness back in 1970 with a mile run. Turgeon did the same with his team and more than 500 students to celebrate the 47th anniversary of the event.

“I’m proud of what we had going up until last season,” Turgeon said. “We didn't expect last season. Do I feel more pressure worrying about anything? No. … Last year is what it is, but we move forward from day one.

“There were things in our culture I didn’t like, that was with us the three years previous that we needed to get back. I think it was an easy fix, and I think our culture is back where it needs to be.”

It was more than the Terps missing star guard Melo Trimble, who had left after his junior year and had been the catalyst to a 79-25 record and three straight NCAA tournament appearances, including the school’s first Sweet 16 since 2003, in his sophomore season.

As he often does, Turgeon blamed himself rather than the players who didn’t perform up to their potential, particularly two seniors, center Michal Cekovsky and wing Jared Nickens, as well as redshirt junior guard Dion Wiley, who transferred to Saint Louis after the season.

“I was disappointed that I didn’t do a better job last year with the team, but I haven’t lost confidence [in myself],” Turgeon said. “I do think because of what we went through, we’ll be a better team because of it and I’ll be a better coach because of it.”

Many forget how Maryland fans came down on Williams toward the end of his 22-year reign, when some thought the Terps failed to capitalize enough on their national championship in 2002 and their back-to-back Final Four appearances in 2001 and 2002.

“Unless you win the national championship, people feel they have the right to criticize,” Williams said last week. “Especially nowadays where everything gets criticized in the country. Where we live it’s the most critical part of the country.

“People can say what they want about your program, but your rebuttal is your team; how they play is their rebuttal. That never affected the way I coached. Things were said, but I knew what I was doing. I knew who the people were who were putting the noise out there. I coached my team.”

College basketball analyst Jay Bilas also believes fans have been a little unfair to Turgeon.

"I tend to look at this as he’s done a great job, and he’s an excellent basketball coach, so I don’t start the year thinking that he has to do x, y or z in order to feel comfortable,” Bilas said Monday.

“But I also live in the world where I don’t think any coach can feel comfortable anymore. This is pro sports now. I felt from the beginning that Mark took a very difficult situation and he’s done a very good job with it."

Williams has become more than just a legendary coach watching from a distance as Turgeon struggled to reach the same level of consistent success the Terps achieved, including a stretch of reaching at least the Sweet 16 seven times in 10 years beginning in 1993-94.

Their relationship has grown much closer over the years.

“First couple of years Gary tried so hard not to get in my way he wasn’t around a lot,” Turgeon recalled. “Now that he’s been away from it longer, he’s at more peace in his life and we’ve been able to develop more of a relationship. But Gary has always backed me.”

According to mutual friends, the bond got stronger when they began to socialize over the summer down on the Delaware shore the past couple of years. Williams has attended a few practices going into this season and has spoken to the team a couple of times.

“I think it’s easier for him to back me now because we’ve become friends and he knows the real me and what I’m all about,” Turgeon said. “No one understands what I go through daily more than him. … So his support means a lot.”

Williams, who recently attended a couple of practices and talked with the team, has empathy for what Turgeon has endured.

“He followed me. I did OK as a coach, I’m in the Hall of Fame and all that stuff,” Williams said. “It’s not easy. It’s never easy. I want Maryland to have a great basketball program, and I will do whatever is necessary to help.

“That’s all it is. Mark is certainly a respected coach, a good enough coach. He’s got his ideas how to play the game and that’s his team. They’re going to play the way he wants to do it.”

Williams said Turgeon shouldn’t change his coaching style for the fans.

“You coach your team. That’s what you do,” Williams said. “There’s a lot of things involved with that. That’s the basic thing. Mark’s a very competent coach. You look at his background, who he worked with.

“Where you learned how to coach, like at a Jacksonville [State in Alabama], all those things go into where you are today. Mark’s had some good teams at Maryland. I’m sure he’s looking forward to coaching this team. He’s got a young team, a quick team. A lot of times, especially nowadays those teams are fun to coach.”

Turgeon will take what could be the youngest team in his 21-year head coaching career into the season opener. There is a six-player recruiting class, including McDonald’s All American Jalen Smith (Mount Saint Joseph). The coah expects there to be growing pains.

“These young guys come in and they’re all a little better than you thought,” Turgeon said. “They all have no ego. This is fun. We haven’t lost a game yet. We haven’t won a game yet. I think we had a great spring because of it.”

Turgeon, 53, also appears confident the FBI investigation into college basketball corruption is not going show any wrongdoing by him or any of his current or former staff.

Maryland received two subpoenas earlier this year looking into two players the Terps recruited. Diamond Stone spent one season playing for Turgeon before turning pro; Silvio De Sousa wound up at Kansas.

Turgeon also doesn’t think the controversy swirling around the campus in the aftermath of Jordan McNair’s death in mid-June and last week’s firing of third-year football coach DJ Durkin is going to affect his program.

“There's no way this is going to affect my program, so I won’t allow it,” Turgeon said Monday. “We’re going to recruit. It hasn’t affected recruiting one bit. There’s all kinds of things swirling around our program. … There’s no distractions out there. We’re getting players. We’re going to continue to get players. We’re going to have a really nice season this year.”

A new college basketball season — his 35th as a player, assistant or head coach — begins Tuesday for Turgeon, who seems refreshed, excited and ready to put last season’s disappointment behind him.

On media day, Turgeon was asked to assess his first seven years at Maryland.

“It hasn’t gone always the way I wanted it to go, obviously,” Turgeon said. “We’ve stayed the course and I’ve continued to grind, work extremely hard and be positive. But I really like where we are right now.

“I hope we can get to the goals I set when I came here. We’ve done a lot of nice things. But we all know what our ultimate goal is at Maryland and it should be that way every year. We continue to strive for that every day.”

don.markus@baltsun.com

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