First-year Maryland men's basketball coach Mark Turgeon is a breath of fresh air, and not just because first-year football coach Randy Edsall is emitting so much funk. No matter who occupied the head office at the Gossett Team House, there's little doubt that athletic director Kevin Anderson at least got the hoops hire right.
Turgeon still is figuring out his team, actually version 3.0. He started the season with just seven scholarship players, didn't have a true point guard for the first nine games and didn't get his big man until the 11th game. Yet the Terrapins managed to survive scares from virtually every non-conference opponent and compile enough ugly wins to enter league play at 10-3.
Prevailing on the road Sunday at North Carolina State was too much to ask. But Maryland rebounded to win its ACC home opener Wednesday, surviving the obligatory second-half swoon for a 70-64 victory against Wake Forest.
And Turgeon's Terps inched another step forward.
"We're starting to become a better basketball team and figure out ways to win games," he said afterward. "Tonight, it was second-chance points and at the foul line, which is a good formula. It's no fun going through games like that. We'd like to win by 16, 18 or 20 points. But that's not who we are as a team right now."
They're still working out the kinks since incorporating guard Pe'Shon Howard and center Alex Len into the mix. But the schedule was kind in giving the Terps three games with the vital new pieces before the trip to Raleigh. It's been addition by addition since then, with a deeper rotation, more well-defined roles and fewer miscast players.
Len, a 7-foot-1 redshirt freshman from the Ukraine, gives Maryland a presence in the paint just by standing there. He grabbed 11 rebounds in his ACC debut and has blocked 12 shots in five games. He's cut into the minutes of forwards James Padgett and particularly Ashton Pankey, who hadn't responded well until Wednesday (nine points and nine rebounds).
Howard hasn't shot well in ACC play, going 1-of-13 in the two games, but he has 11 assists. His return from a foot injury allows Terrell Stoglin to play off the ball and do what he does best - score. It also takes pressure off freshman Nick Faust, a wing who clearly was uncomfortable (and ill-suited) at the point.
Turgeon, a former point guard himself, has been less exasperated on the bench since Howard took over the offense. But the coach still turns toward his assistants several times per half with a perplexed look, trying to decipher what he just saw and why. Especially after intermission, as the Terps have developed an annoying habit of letting big leads evaporate.
A 23-point advantage against visiting Cornell shrunk to one Jan. 3, a memory that recurred as the Demon Deacons whittled a 16-point deficit to three midway. Maryland held on in both instances, but this time was different. Growth and maturity were evident.
"In the Cornell game, we all put our heads down," Turgeon said. "It looked like the world was coming to an end; we just lost our dog. [Wednesday] it didn't look that way. We kept fighting - missing layups and doing what we do. But we did what you have to do. We're not very good in the last four minutes yet in terms of execution. We're not where we need to be."
Frank and earnest assessment quickly has become a Turgeon trademark, blaming himself for his shortcomings and his players for theirs. There's only so much he can do with the cupboard he inherited, but he knows the season-long process will make him a better coach. He said he was more nervous entering the Wake Forest game than any other game with the Terps.
That was news to senior forward Sean Mosley.
"It's so hard to figure coach out sometimes," Mosley said. "You don't know if he's nervous or what. But I know once that ball goes up, he's ready to get after it. That's the most important thing."
Just like Turgeon still is getting a handle on his new team, his players are doing likewise on him. Substitution patterns are being fine-tuned, standards are being established and limits are being set. They're growing accustomed to his sometimes fiery demeanor, his demands for defense and the quick hook at his disposal.
"I think we've figured everything out now," Mosley said. "The first couple of games [with Howard and Len] we tried to figure out and coach tried to figure it out. Now everything is getting back to normal.
If only the same was true on the other side of Maryland's revenue-sports equation.
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