In May 2011, Maryland tabbed Mark Turgeon to replace a coach who was later recognized as an ACC legend, inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Basketball Hall of Fame and honored by state government. Gary Williams led the Terrapins to a national championship, two Final Fours and 14 NCAA tournament appearances. When he resigned after 22 seasons, the hope was that his successor could help the Terrapins reach similar heights.
Before ultimately landing Turgeon from Texas A&M, Maryland reportedly reached out to Pittsburgh’s Jamie Dixon and Arizona’s Sean Miller, among other potential candidates. Still, Turgeon was viewed as a solid hire. During his 13 seasons as a Division I coach, he had helped Wichita State make major strides in the Missouri Valley Conference, led the Aggies to four consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and drawn praise for his tactical acumen.
[daily_cut.college basketball]“Mark Turgeon is an outstanding basketball coach. He is a great teacher with tremendous X & O skills, but he is also incredibly disciplined,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said of the hiring of Turgeon. “Mark’s teams play the right way. They share the ball, take good shots, are tough minded, and play hard at both ends. Maryland hired the real thing in Mark Turgeon.”
The initial optimism surrounding Turgeon gave way to questions about uneven results on the court over his first three seasons. In 2011-12, Maryland finished eighth in the Atlantic Coast Conference and won 17 games, its lowest total since 1995-96. Though the Terps improved by eight wins the next season, they turned in another 17-win campaign in 2013-14. The lack of clear progress left the program’s trajectory in question heading into the offseason.
A tumultuous spring that saw five scholarship players transfer—including second-leading scorer Seth Allen—bred more doubt over whether Turgeon could lead the Terrapins back to prominence. In May, director of athletics Kevin Anderson gave Turgeon a vote of confidence, saying at a news conference that “I totally support Mark.” A few months later, a media panel picked Maryland to finish 10th out of 14 teams in its inaugural season in the Big Ten.
That projection drastically missed the mark. With the conference tournament beginning this week, the biggest question about Maryland is what seed it will earn in the NCAAs.
The Terps beat Nebraska, 64-61, on Sunday night to move to 26-5, with a 14-4 record against Big Ten competition. Maryland has notched nonconference wins over Arizona State, Iowa State and Oklahoma State and has upended then-No. 5 Wisconsin, as well as likely tourney team Michigan State twice during conference play. No matter how the Terps fare in the coming weeks, they may be the best team Maryland has fielded in the last decade.
“Maryland, to have 20 wins, with the offseason that Mark had and to deal with that the way that he did, and to come into this season and get those guys better the way that he has—Mark’s one of the best coaches in the country,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said in February. “I mean, and that’s not just because we played them tonight. I know him pretty good—I don’t know him great. But I have unreal respect for him, and it’s not easy to do that. It’s not easy to withstand dealing with adversity like that and he’s done it and they’re better for it.”
One of the biggest differences from last season is Maryland’s success in close games. The Terps have gone 10-0 in games with a final margin of six points or fewer. Compare that to 2013-14, when Maryland dropped seven of 10 games decided by four points or fewer. One indication of the Terps’ improved fortunes in close games is that their team efficiency ranking on Ken Pomeroy’s database is only eight spots higher (40 to 32) than it was last season.
Another reason Maryland has improved is the play of freshman guard Melo Trimble. His scoring, distributing and ability to draw fouls has helped mitigate the loss of Allen. In addition, Jake Layman has made a significant leap in his junior season. The 6’9” forward is shooting a higher percentage inside and beyond the three-point arc, grabbing a higher percentage of rebounds on both ends of the floor and scoring at a more efficient clip while taking on a larger possession workload.
Though Trimble and Layman deserve credit for their contributions, Turgeon orchestrated Maryland’s stunning emergence into the Big Ten’s second-place finisher behind Wisconsin. He made tweaks on the offensive end of the floor, helped the team perform better in crunch time, leveraged senior Dez Wells, Trimble and Laymans’ strengths, and coaxed important contributions from less heralded players. The result is a strong team with the potential to make a deep March run.