The next day, Turgeon met with the seven players who make up the core of what is, frankly, a rather thin and fragile rotation. He recalls being near tears.
“Guys, I can’t handle this losing,” he said he told them. “I can’t do it. We’ve got to figure this out.”
The players’ response: “Coach, we got you.”
It is too early to determine what college coaches and their players will learn from playing the 2020-21 season through the coronavirus pandemic. It’s still midstream. Emotions are raw, schedules unstable, environments unfamiliar. There are NCAA tournament berths at stake. Pandemic or not, there must be focus and preparation.
But one thing we have learned about the Terps — not to mention so many other teams across the country, all dealing with the rigors of virus testing and the isolation of existing in a bubble — is that an inner competitive instinct can survive the pandemic, too. Strip away so much of what makes college basketball special — the bands, the student sections, the bleachers jammed with fans wearing the exact same hue — and you’re left with five players in one jersey absolutely burning to beat the five in the other.
“There’s no doubt,” Turgeon said by phone Thursday. “I don’t think the players get enough credit for doing what they’re doing. For everybody to play to the level they’ve played at in our league and around the country, it’s who we are — competitors. Down deep, that’s truly what we are. It’s what drives you.”
And so, after that we-can’t-stand-losing meeting that included program leaders Aaron Wiggins, Darryl Morsell and Eric Ayala, the Terps had to reinvent themselves. Turgeon and his staff overhauled the offense, which performed better against Ohio State. But it was still a loss, and there they were, 4-9 in the league.
More importantly, though, that meeting helped them recommit to what this team has to be: a tenacious band of defenders in which all five players on the floor fit what the others are doing. There’s no Smith or Bruno Fernando lurking under the basket to block opponents who get to the rim, and center Chol Marial hasn’t developed as the coaching staff expected or hoped. If one Terp misses a defensive assignment, the entire operation breaks down.
“We finally said it: This is going to be Maryland defense, and that’s going to be Maryland basketball,” Turgeon said.
The result: a team that doesn’t think about flying out on the break but one that actively chatters from the bench about holding the opponent under 50 points. Three straight wins — over Minnesota and back-to-back against conference cellar dweller Nebraska — weren’t perfect. But now Maryland (13-10) is back to 7-9 in the conference entering Sunday’s game at Rutgers, and an NCAA tournament berth — so distant on that bus ride back from State College — is a legitimate consideration. The Terps have interesting bullet points to put on their résumé: wins at Illinois and Wisconsin, which rank fourth and 22nd in the NCAA’s NET rankings, a key factor in determining at-large berths. Another victory at then-ranked Minnesota. A home win over then-ranked Purdue. Zero bad losses.
The Terps themselves rank 35th in NET and have played what the formula determines to be the nation’s seventh-toughest schedule. Their four remaining regular season games — at Rutgers, home against Michigan State, at Northwestern and home against Penn State — provide a pretty clear path to the tournament.
About that: Last year’s team with Cowan and Smith had earned the right to play into March — maybe even deep into March. We’ll never know. More than that, they’ll never know. The Big Ten and NCAA tournaments were canceled 11 months ago. That still stings.
“That team didn’t have a ceiling,” Turgeon said. “We could’ve lost in the first round, but we could’ve made a run. When the tournament starts this year it’s going to be really hard for those seniors, I believe. Every year for the rest of their life, when the NCAA tournament’s going on, they’re going to be reminded they had a legitimate chance to make a run. That’s heartbreaking.”
Turgeon is, amazingly, in his 10th year in College Park. By now, that’s the kind of team he expects to have: a group that is poised to be dangerous come March. Even with the improvements this season, that’s not what he has now. There are reasons both simple and complicated — missing out on more than a dozen pure point guards in recruiting, Marial’s slow development, some freshmen who flat-out aren’t yet ready.
But it is Turgeon’s program, and this is Turgeon’s team. A decade in, there are no excuses.
“The one thing I think a leader does, when you’re good — like last year, I’d be bragging about how good my players are and how hard my coaches work,” he said. “I think it’s my job as a leader now to take the blame. This is not where I want my program to be. I’m really proud of how we’re competing and what we’re doing with what we’ve got. We’ve figured out how to coach this team.”
But that was a process, a bumpy one at that. There’s little solace that some of the sport’s royalty are similarly struggling. Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, Michigan State and Kentucky all rank 50th or below in NET. Any and all could miss the tourney.
Which gets us back to where we started: The pandemic has been hard on us all. Losing during it is an extra turn of the screw.
“I feel bad for my wife,” Turgeon said. “I’m in a bad mood all the time. And covid doesn’t help. Normally, I could get out on the road and go recruiting, and someone will say, ‘You’re doing a great job, Coach,’ and I’ll go, ‘Okay, maybe it’s not as bad once I get outside my little bubble.’
“But the losing just rips you up. When you’re not used to losing, it’s worse. But there’s a lot of pride in our program. We’re not accepting it. We don’t accept losing. Some people do. Maryland basketball doesn’t.”
Strip away the difficulties and machinations of an unprecedented season, and that’s what you’re left with: competitors who set their own standards and get to celebrate when they reach them. But when they don’t, it eats at their insides, coronavirus or not.