- - Thursday, February 14, 2019

Coach Mark Turgeon cheerfully talked about his Maryland basketball team following its win over 12th-ranked Purdue Tuesday night at the Xfinity Center.

“I keep saying, we get better every possession,” Turgeon said. “We’re really coming.”

Now, Turgeon is not typically cheerful. He is a guy generally who keeps his foot on the brakes emotionally. Not that he hasn’t been positive about his teams before.

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But this was a step beyond just talking up your kids. This was saying, “That was pretty good, but you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

It was hard not to come to that conclusion after watching one of the best 20 minutes a Terrapins team has played at home since Turgeon took over for the legendary Gary Williams in 2011.

After being down eight in the first half, we saw a Maryland team (19-6, 10-4 in the Big Ten) that locked down the Purdue offense, holding them to 18 points, while finally putting the offense in the hands of their power big man duo, Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith, scoring 40 second-half points and firing up the late-arriving home crowd who left the arena probably thinking about the same thing Turgeon was — possibilities.

That team we saw in the second half is a second-weekend tournament team. Those players who dominated the floor in the final 20 minutes against the Boilermakers could — and should — find their way to at least the Sweet 16 in March.

Right now, those are the expectations, from Turgeon and likely from Maryland fans.

“It is pretty impressive,” Turgeon said, talking about how his team recovered to dominate Purdue for a 70-56 win. “And I think we can get better.”

They should. Maryland is a young team, with two freshmen and two sophomore starters.

Maryland’s kids will be tested again Saturday in Ann Arbor against sixth-ranked Michigan (22-3, 11-3), coming off a stunning 75-69 loss to Penn State. The Wolverines lost to Purdue when they faced each other last month.

“They have a bunch of 19-year-olds running around out there making shots and making plays,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said after the loss to Maryland. “That’s pretty cool. You get to see guys grow. The thing that’s kind of amazed me about Maryland is young guys are often not very good defenders. It takes them a while.”

Turgeon believes his young players have come a long way since the season started. “They are young guys, but they have a lot of experience now,” he said.

Then, in case you missed it, Turgeon said for the third time in eight minutes, “We just keep getting better.”

How much better? By March, they might be good enough to play with anybody.

I said that. Not Turgeon.

Of course, with bigger expectations comes the risk of bigger disappointments, something that Maryland fans are familiar with under Turgeon. They’ve had three NCAA appearances in seven seasons, and first-weekend exits in two of them. There has been one Sweet 16 appearance, when Maryland beat South Dakota State and Hawaii — not the toughest tournament road — before losing to Kansas 79-63 in 2016.

That 27-9 Maryland squad was the Rasheed Sulaimon-Diamond Stone-Jake Layman team, which also had big expectations. The legacy of that team is the investigation that found Stone received illegal payments from an agent.

This Maryland team seems different, and they are. If fact, they are different than most teams they have faced this season and will face moving forward. They may be a young team, but they have an old soul — a big man’s soul.

After floundering in the first half, Maryland woke up and made offensive changes, moving the game inside with their two 6-foot-10 towers, Smith and Fernando, who scored just five combined points in the first half. They combined for 23 points in the second half.

“We did change some things offensively, taking guys off baseline and playing on the post,” Turgeon said. “We are really hard to guard when I put him (Smith) at the five. That kind of got him going a little bit. We were much tougher.”

They are much tougher because the game of basketball today is not played under the rim. You have a generation of players who live around the perimeter, offensively and defensively. When challenged by not just one, but two bigs like Smith and Fernando, most defenses will be tested and wind up with their version of big men in foul trouble.

This is the path to the Sweet 16 — and maybe beyond.

• Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday and Sunday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast every Tuesday and Thursday.

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