- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Interspersed between his usual candid assessments of players and his program, Maryland coach Mark Turgeon balked Tuesday when the opportunity to take stock of the Terrapins was offered.

With Maryland at 10-3, Turgeon’s first season has unfolded well under the conditions. With conference play looming, the calculus is about to change.

“I’m not going to tell you what I think,” Turgeon said after a 70-62 defeat of Cornell. “I just know where we are. I know where we need to get to.”

Left unsaid was an obvious point: The two locations are not the same.

Make no mistake, Turgeon and the Terps are to be lauded for avoiding the sort of puzzling pitfall on paper that produces apoplectic responses from fans.

The three teams Maryland lost to entered Wednesday night a combined 34-9. The Terps averted potential upsets at home, including Tuesday’s scare when the Big Red nearly erased a 23-point deficit.

Still, even with the entirety of the ACC perceived to be down even compared to last year — nonconference play suggests there are few sure things besides usual all-around stalwarts Duke and North Carolina, as well as Virginia at the defensive end — things are about to change for the Terps.

Maryland plays its first true road game of the season Sunday when it visits N.C. State. But of far greater significance than location is quality, which is certain to improve from the 186th-ranked schedule the Terps have played to date according to collegerpi.com.

“I think we’re ready,” guard Terrell Stoglin said. “I still think we need to get better. We have a lot of work to do.”

The problem inherent with parsing the Terps’ work to date is the two distinct stretches they’ve faced. Maryland played its first nine games without guard Pe’Shon Howard and center Alex Len, then added both within a week.

Mixing in two starters will change the fortunes of any team, and the Terps clearly have more settled point guard play thanks to Howard and an imposing and athletic option on the interior with the 7-foot-1 Len.

“I think we worked extremely hard to get to this point we’re at right now,” guard Sean Mosley said. “I think with everybody playing and having Alex and Pe’Shon back, it’s a plus for us right now.”

The pair instantly made Maryland better, but how large a leap is debatable. The Terps built their largest lead of the season Tuesday, bolting to a 28-5 edge in less than 10 minutes, an unthinkably massive margin when Turgeon could deploy only seven recruited scholarship players in November.

But the same team grew careless, struggling with turnovers and poor shooting choices. As a result, Cornell cut its deficit to a point on four occasions.

It was a reflection of inexperience, a bugaboo throughout the season and one with the potential to become much more damaging in conference play.

Add in two games each with Duke, North Carolina and Virginia — Maryland is the only school in the league to deal with all three ranked teams twice — and Turgeon’s frustrations eventually might be amplified by the Terps’ meandering through an arduous conference schedule.

If his emphatic pleas don’t help the Terps improve, he can always resort to pride. Maryland was universally picked in the bottom third of the conference, a fact not forgotten in College Park.

“The highest pick I saw was ninth,” Turgeon said. “I saw 11th, I saw 12th, I saw 10th. We’re still that team, and we have a chance to prove guys wrong. We’ll see if we’re good enough and capable of doing it.”

Those prognostications occurred before Howard suffered a broken foot, but also a couple of weeks in advance of the NCAA sorting out Len’s eligibility. The Terps could finish anywhere in the garbled middle of the ACC, and they find themselves in a better place than probably was expected two months ago.

But is it where they need to be? One way or another, Maryland is about to find out.

“They look at me like I’m absolutely crazy every day in practice about doing it right every time,” Turgeon said. “I was hoping we could learn that from winning. We might just have to get our tail kicked before they figure that out. Hopefully, I’m wrong.”

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