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Mark Turgeon On Chol, Importance of Ayala and Commitment to Social Justice

Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon spoke with All Terrapins in a wide-ranging exclusive interview as he broke down the roster and talked about the team's commitment to social justice reform.

The Big Ten remains in evaluation mode as they determine a start date for fall sports, but the impact on winter sports has been glossed over as college basketball programs across the country navigate through paused workouts in the critical months before the season. For head coach Mark Turgeon, the challenges have presented themselves throughout the offseason as all training at Maryland has been temporarily suspended as they await results from the latest round of COVID-19 testing. With senior leader Anthony Cowan and star center Jalen Smith gone from the rotation, Turgeon is working to assimilate the team to develop the chemistry on the court.

“There’s been a lot of challenges, obviously. Number one is just not being around each other for long periods of time and communication, things like that is a challenge,” Turgeon told All Terrapins in an exclusive interview. “We try and do a great job of seeing guys every day or talking to them on the phone, Facetiming them and things like that. They’re back in school right now but the athletic department, as you know, has been shut down for two weeks so we haven’t been able to see them. That’s good for them for school, they get a chance to just lock in and concentrate on school and hopefully get off to a good start.”

Maryland was able to make the most out of their time in Xfinity Center this summer during a five-week stretch as freshmen Marcus Dockery and Aquan Smart ease into the college speed of the game, but uncertainty moving forward has made preparing for the season even more difficult. 

“Not being in the gym has been a challenge, we were in the gym five weeks this summer, a lot of individual work and things like that. It was good to be in the gym, made us all happy, made us all smile. I guess the biggest challenge and you live it, everybody is living it in this world, is just the uncertainty. Are we going to have a season? Not have a season? Are we going to be able to practice next week or not? You know, are you going to be able to take the mask off? It’s just the uncertainty is really been the hardest part about everything, but we’re grinding away and guys have had good attitudes. Through COVID, I think we’ve gotten quite a few things done as a program, so it’s been good.”

As Turgeon and the staff navigate through the stringent measures in place, Maryland takes solace in returning now junior point guard Eric Ayala to help fill the void left by Cowan. Ayala’s experience running the offense gives Maryland a strong starting point as the staff irons out the kinks, but the reliance on Ayala as a scorer is now magnified heading into year three. “Eric had a great freshman year and played great against Michigan on senior day when we won the championship so Eric is a guy that can really score at that position. He’s very comfortable there but we’re going to need him to score more or look to score and be aggressive that way with the loss of Cowan.” Maryland signed a pair of guards to round out the backcourt as Marcus Dockery and Aquan Smart have impressed in the early stages.

“The five weeks that we had this summer, we were really pleased with our two freshmen guards—Marcus Dockery and Aquan Smart. Dockery can really get the ball in the basket, shoot it from deep and is good off the dribble. He’s a good player, plays hard and has a good attitude. Aquan is a guy that’s a pass-first guy that we think can be an elite defender, tremendous in transition, great speed. He had a good five weeks with us, those guys gave us energy, gave us useful exuberance, they were great those two guys. We feel like we’re pretty secured at the point guard position even though we lost Cowan. We’ve had a lot of great point guards at Maryland, but we lost a really great one last year in Anthony Cowan.”

While the confidence sits in the backcourt, Turgeon will look to a committee approach to fill the shoes left by center Jalen Smith, who led the Big Ten with 21 double-doubles a season ago. Sophomore center Chol Marial appeared in 12 games last season as he missed the first half of the year recovering from surgery but averaged just over five minutes per game as he eased himself into the rotation. Turgeon noted both getting healthy and in shape has been the focus this offseason as he transitions into an increased role. “Unfortunately, he needs to play basketball every day, he needs to play five-on-five, get his rhythm back. He’s basically been hurt for almost three years and so I felt it hasn’t gone great for him as far as that goes.”

“Now, he’s pretty much injury-free, full clearance, he’s progressed, moving better, feet moving better, stronger, he’s more confident. We were limited in the time we had with him but in five weeks, he improved. We want Chol to get back to the Chol he was before as far as shot-blocking, protecting the rim, rebounding but offensively he got better around the basket and had more balance, so he was better around the basket. Pretty skilled, can shoot it 15 to 17 [feet away], he’ll say he can shoot the three which I think he can eventually in games. He’s definitely improved since the season ended last year, we just need to get in the gym with him, get up and down, scrimmage and play pick-up because our guys can’t play pick-up now.” Marial won’t be the only big man the Terps turn to this upcoming season.

Maryland added veteran new name down low through the transfer portal when Alabama forward Galin Smith announced his decision to enroll in College Park. The early returns have been positive, according to Turgeon. “We were pleasantly surprised with Galin. Little faster, little quicker, little more explosive and a great kid. He knows what he is, he averaged 16 minutes a game in three years at Alabama so he has a lot of experience and played at a high level so I think he can really help us there. He’s got a good feel offensively on where to find holes in the defense, good ball screen offense and I think he’ll really good in ball screen defense and he rebounds well.” The second addition down low came when Swiss forward Arnaud Revaz announced he would spend the next four years with Maryland as the staff awaits patiently to work with the newest addition.

“We haven’t worked with Arnaud yet since he just got here since the shutdown so hopefully next week, we work with him. He needs to get in the weight room but very skilled, relatively new to the game, has played really three and a half years. Was a track guy, kept growing, got in the gym so I think all those guys will get better and better once we get back in the gym and work with them.”

While Turgeon and the staff are focused on preparing the team for the eventual tip-off of college basketball, events during the calendar year have reshaped sports throughout the summer. The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery have sparked protests across the country to rejuvenate the conversation around social injustice in a demand for change. Turgeon issued a statement back on June 3 stating the team would read "Why We Can't Wait" by Martin Luther King as the team discusses each chapter "to better understand systemic racism and what we can do to fix it." The commitment to education off the court has driven the team to demand change as they work to tackle the issue head on.

“It’s something when it happened, our team dove into it. A lot of us were really upset when it started with George Floyd. It’s something I wanted to do but my team really has driven it and it’s forced me to really educate myself on black history, which we did. When it first started it was all overwhelming to me but now it’s like something we all feel comfortable with. We’ve had some tremendous meetings talking about black history, things we can do, things that have happened in the past, we’ve been able to unload a lot of things in a safe space. It’s been good, [director of operations] Mark Bialkoski did a great job of getting my guys all registered and set up for absentee voting, our next step now is educating our players. Aaron Wiggins from Greensboro, educating him on things back in Greensboro that he can load on because he ends up back in Greensboro for something important to him. That’s the next step for us as we get closer to November 3 is voting, something they’re very passionate about, it’s something we don’t want to let die. We want to do it in a professional way but number one, we educated our program on black history so when we do speak up and when players do use their platform, they’re educated when they’re doing it. It’s just not someone talking because he’s angry, but he’s talking because he’s been educated so I think that’s what I feel great about that we’ve been able to do with our team.”

The first big of progress that came to fruition was inspired by the increased awareness around voter registration. The Xfinity Center was selected as one of eleven early voting locations in Prince George's County between October 26 and November 3 with the Capital One Arena announcing they would also serve as an early voting super center just two days later. It’s a trend that has begun sweeping the nation as the right to vote has magnified as the presidential election draws near, but for Turgeon, it’s a decision that aligns with the new mission set by the program.

“That’s what we want. We want to see progress. That was university-driven and athletic director-driven with the Xfinity Center, we all backed it and 100% behind it and I think that will be great to see on our campus for our young people, especially with COVID it makes it more safer with more space to vote. It was a no-brainer for us, I think you’ll see it more closer to election, more colleges doing it and we wanted to be at the forefront of that and I applaud our university, Dr. Pines and Damon Evans, for making that happen. Locks and I have been on the same page as this from the beginning and being one of the older guys in the athletic department, in coaching over the years, probably 75% or 80% of my players have been black so I thought it was important for me to do what I’ve done. I’m very comfortable with it, it’s something I believe in. I don’t believe in trashing our cities, but I believe in making things better for blacks, there’s got to be a way to handle crisis situations better than we have. I’m not a cop and I applaud cops for what they’ve done, but hopefully we can educate ourselves and be better with that as time goes on.”