Mark Turgeon spoke excitedly Monday about taking Maryland to the NIT in his second season at the helm of a rebuilding program.
Then, someone asked the coach if there might come a time soon when the Terrapins won’t be happy with an invite to the NIT.
“Yeah, like next year? Is that soon enough?” he replied.
Given that the Terrapins (22-11) haven’t played in the postseason since 2010, a berth in the NIT as a second seed is something to celebrate. When longtime coach Gary Williams retired before the 2011-12 season, he didn’t leave much talent behind.
“My second day on the job I had six players,” Turgeon recalled. “I was like, ‘Oh my Gosh, what was I thinking?’ To be at 22 wins, to beat Duke twice, I’m really pleased. I’m really proud of my team. I’m really hoping that the best part is ahead of us.”
Maryland went 17-15 last season, so this year represents a significant move in the right direction. Not only did the Terrapins twice defeat Duke — a second seed in the NCAA tournament — but they also won 13 in a row at one point and advanced to the semifinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
The motivation of playing in the NIT is to continue the progression and perhaps perform at Madison Square Garden in New York. Maryland opens the NIT on Tuesday night at home against Niagra (19-13).
“Our whole thing all year, especially late, was just trying to get better,” Turgeon said. “Now we have an opportunity to continue to get better. There are a lot of really good teams in this tournament. We’re one of them. We haven’t been in a tournament in two years here at Maryland. So I think it’s great for us. We’re just trying to build a program.”
Had the Terrapins won one or two more ACC games during the regular season or managed to squeeze past North Carolina on Saturday, they might have earned a spot in the NCAA tournament. Playing in the NIT is the second-best thing.
“For where we are right now, this is a huge building block for us,” Turgeon said.
There are only two seniors on the roster, and although there’s a good chance 7-foot-1 sophomore center Alex Len could be headed toward the NBA, the majority of this squad can get a jump on next season by playing more meaningful games this month.
“We all know we’re still playing for something,” forward Dez Wells said. “It’s not the NCAA tournament, but it’s a great tournament to play in so I’m excited about that.”
Sophomore guard Nick Faust said, “It is what it is. You’ve just got to accept and embrace this opportunity. You try to get as many wins as you can and maybe win the whole thing.”
This Maryland’s eighth appearance in the NIT. Maryland has lost in the first round only once — at home against Manhattan in 2006 when it was painstakingly clear that Williams and his players didn’t want to be there. Turgeon isn’t worried about this team being motivated, although he wonders about the physical toll of playing four games last week.
“My biggest concern is just getting our bodies fresh,” the coach said. “We took Sunday off. We were able to travel home after the game Saturday. Hopefully our energy level is good. I know our confidence will be high.”