Last year, in the first game of Mark Turgeon’s first season at Maryland, he shook hands with counterpart Buzz Peterson of UNC Wilmington.
Friday night, when Turgeon’s second campaign tips off at the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., he’ll exchange pregame pleasantries with coach John Calipari of the defending national champion Kentucky Wildcats.
The considerable difference in season-opening opponents is largely coincidental, but it exemplifies the basketball program’s sea change. A transformation is under way, one that has put Maryland and Kentucky in the same discussions since last summer (and not just previews of their matchup in the Barclays Center Classic).
Wednesday brought an exclamation point for the Terrapins: The NCAA, reversing its earlier decision, ruled that Xavier transfer Dez Wells is eligible to play. His immediate availability is expected to lift Maryland into the ACC’s upper echelon and the NCAA tournament.
But even if Wells had been forced to sit out the entire season, he still would get credit for boosting the program in September, when he chose Maryland over Kentucky.
Terps fans likely did a double-take when they saw that Wells — the highly coveted, Atlantic 10 Freshman of the Year — listed Maryland among his possible destinations after Xavier expelled him on dubious grounds. But he also listed Kentucky, and visited Lexington first, which usually is where the story ends for other interested suitors.
Calipari has landed the top-rated recruiting class for four consecutive years, building an NBA pipeline that consistently draws lottery-pick talent. He picks his players as much as they pick Kentucky. Suffice it to say that Turgeon and Maryland aren’t quite at that level.
“Kentucky is still rolling out players that we couldn’t even get involved with,” Turgeon said at a news conference.
About 98 percent of the other coaches and schools are in the same position. But Maryland beat Kentucky for Wells, a bruising, 6-5 wing who has altered the Terps’ outlook this season with his newfound eligibility.
“People don’t understand what Dez does for their team,” Calipari said during a conference call. “I’m happy for Mark, but I’m more happy than Dez. This changes their team. They go from a team that was going to be good to a team that can say, ‘Who in the ACC can’t we compete with?’”
Bringing Wells into the fold garnered national attention. But it was only a precursor to the buzz that ensued in autumn, as Maryland (along with Kentucky) emerged among the vaunted Harrison twins’ top choices. Consensus top-five national recruits and one of the best package deals in history, guards Aaron and Andrew announced their decision during a live broadcast on ESPNU.
This time, order was restored and the Harrisons chose Kentucky. But the damage to Maryland’s reputation as a second-level program was done. Coming that close on the top backcourt prospects put the Terps in a different light.
“People mention that we came in second [on the Harrisons], but we came in first with Dez,” Maryland guard Pe’Shon Howard said. “It’s going to be a battle for years to come, which is good for us. Kentucky is the upper echelon of college basketball. Coach Turgeon has been here two years and has us at the same pedestal.”
Actually, the Terps have a long way to go before they can stand up there with the Wildcats. Recruiting battles are one method of closing the gap, and nothing helps in that arena better than on-court success. Maryland will have better chances of victory against lesser foes later this season, but a shot at the national champs is worthwhile nonetheless.
“John [Calipari] could have called anyone in the country, but he called me and asked if I wanted to play in this game,” Turgeon said. “We both knew that we were going to have young teams going in. I thank him for giving us this opportunity. The publicity that we are going to get from playing in this game is big for our program, win or lose.”
No team comes close to Kentucky in the publicity department. NBA draft night has become an alternate graduation ceremony for the school, which has produced 11 first-rounders in Calipari’s three seasons, including the No. 1 pick in two of the past three years. As if the Wildcats don’t enjoy enough saturation coverage already, ESPN just concluded a reality show entitled “All-Access Kentucky.”
Not that Calipari needs any assistance, but the behind-scenes show could help with recruiting. Even so, some coaches have expressed reluctance to allow cameras, fearing the distraction. Turgeon isn’t among them.
“If you get a show like that, it means you’ve had some pretty good years,” he said.