ROSEMONT, Ill. – The Maryland basketball assistants have a homework assignment, and it is due Nov. 1. Each was given a handful of Big Ten teams to scout months ago. They were to scour film from last year and produce detailed reports as if the Terrapins faced that particular opponent that week. The personnel might be different this winter, and the plays might change. It didn’t matter. The objective was building familiarity and a base of knowledge about the inhabitants of a strange new world.
All of it is to be presented to head coach Mark Turgeon before Maryland’s first exhibition game this season.
“It’s more on your plate,” Turgeon said, “but if you like basketball, it’s good to do.”
At 8:28 a.m. last Thursday, the Terrapins’ fourth-year coach appeared in a hotel ballroom before dozens of bleary-eyed observers propped up by caffeine on conference media day. Outside, it was a nippy, misty Midwestern October morning in the Chicago suburbs. Maryland hoops, ceremonially and climatically, had arrived in the Big Ten.
And given this new Terrapins station, questions followed about the fresh start and epic rivalries left behind in the ACC, a league it helped found. None of those answers mattered. Certainly not as much as what Turgeon and his staff will do to catch up, fast, on coaches and systems they’ve rarely worked against before. Institutional knowledge can aid a coach’s feel and adjustments significantly, and neither Maryland nor fellow newcomer Rutgers will have it. The first run through the Big Ten is, essentially, a foreign tour.
“It’s hard,” Turgeon said. “You become a better coach the more you coach against a system or a coach. I might make some mistakes this year that I might not make in Year 2, because I learn a little bit more about their system. You can watch it on film. It’s different when you actually play in person.”
It’s a legitimate problem that other teams have faced in conference realignment. One of the biggest challenges in Notre Dame’s first run through the ACC last season, coach Mike Brey has noted several times, was countering new schemes and savvy players on the fly. That coaching touch can only be obtained by experience. And it’s a distinct advantage for the seven Big Ten coaches who have spent four or more years in the conference.
When his team hits a lull or faces superior talent, Matt Painter can reach back through nine years at Purdue and to figure out how the Boilermakers can succeed. It’s show, not tell, and and it only works if you’ve been there before. “When you join a league like that, it’s almost like all your games are non-conference,” Painter said. “It’s like taking a job. Mark’s been at Maryland, but this is like him taking a new job, almost, coming into the Big Ten.”
Hence the assignments for Turgeon's assistants this summer. The reports won’t be scrutinized as intensely as an in-season version. But Maryland’s head coach already has thumbed through seven or eight of them. “Just to kind of get a feel [for those teams],” he said. “Are they big? Are they small? Do they spread the floor? Do they pound it inside?” Inevitably, the coaches will find themselves scurrying to plan for actual Big Ten games while also chasing recruits and balancing all their other responsibilities. The pre-scouts ensure they won’t start from scratch.
“If I only have two days to prepare for Michigan State,” Turgeon said, “I’m going to have a really good feel from what I’ve put in this time of year.”
A bit of player initiative helps, too. The Terrapins haven’t been handed the coaches’ info on Big Ten foes, but they’re self-scouting, in a way. “I’m a student of the game, I watch basketball 24/7 -- it’s almost an obsession,” senior forward Dez Wells said. “Sometimes I wish I was different, but it’s a great problem to have.” So he’s watched a lot of Big Ten basketball and says he already has a reserve of knowledge on conference teams and their tendencies, or areas he and teammates must be wary of. It’s not different than how he might have approached another ACC season. It’s just more crucial.
“When you go into something new, you always want to do your research and your homework on the atmosphere and how things are going to be,” Wells said. “You want to come prepared regardless of what conference you’re playing in.”
Maryland also has Evan Smotrycz, the senior forward who played at Michigan for one season before transferring to College Park, going from the Big Ten to the ACC and back again. The joke was that Smotrycz would handle all the scouting reports for the new league, but Turgeon confirmed he will indeed “rely on Evan a lot” this season. Smotrycz thinks he’ll be able to contribute -- especially after he recovers from a broken foot that will sideline him for four-to-six weeks -- though he also notes that he offered a few thoughts on Ohio State last year. Maryland lost to the Buckeyes by 16 in a non-conference tilt. “Obviously it didn’t help,” he deadpanned.
“Teams switch up from year to year, due to personnel,” Smotrycz added. “The ACC would have been different this year, too. The biggest difference will be traveling to a lot colder locations. We don’t get to go to Miami anymore.”
Maryland did catch a break on tricky travel logistics, though: The Terrapins have only two weeknight Big Ten road games while school is in session, and both are in the Eastern time zone, preventing too many late nights before morning classes. So they won’t have to navigate a new league the hard way. And the home slate should jolt fans wistful about the ACC out of their post-parting depression: Michigan State, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan pay visits to the Xfinity Center in College Park.
The issue is not where Maryland plays or which teams it plays. It’s figuring out how to play in the Big Ten, and fast, lest opposing staffs prey on the uncertainty. “I’ve been in a lot of leagues,” Turgeon said. “I realize you just gotta do what you do, and try to do it well, and do the best you can. But we’re going to be who we are.”
Who the Terrapins are is yet to be determined given that four key players -- guards Seth Allen, Nick Faust and Roddy Peters and center Shaquille Cleare -- transferred after last season. Wells, Smotrycz and swingman Jake Layman were three of the top four players by minutes last year and will make up the nucleus of this year's team. Whether or not that's enough to help Maryland improve on its 17-15 record a year ago and into the NCAA tournament for the first time in Turgeon's four seasons is unclear.
Ready or not, though, the Terps are out of their league and into a new one. And they certainly appear intent on the "ready" part.
At media day last week, Wells was asked which players or teams he circled on the calendar as potentially defining matchups. With a “B1G” pin tacked to the lapel of his maroon corduroy blazer, the All-Big Ten candidate smiled.
“I want them all,” Wells said. “I don’t discriminate. I want them all.”