When Danny Manning took over as Maryland’s interim head basketball coach in December, he acknowledged the challenge he and the program faced after coach Mark Turgeon’s resignation.
“Change is hard,” Manning said.
That may have been an understatement.
Coming off three straight conference losses last week, the Terrapins are 0-4 in Big Ten play. The last time Maryland started 0-4 in conference was 1992-93 — a year in which fourth-year coach Gary Williams and the Terrapins finished 2-14 in ACC play.
If the situation looked bleak when Turgeon stepped down on Dec. 3, the team’s outlook now is at best a massive question mark and at worst a potential disaster.
“It’s never a layup. When you go through change, it’s never a layup,” Manning said Tuesday. “I really like the resolve of the young men on our roster. We’ve continued to go out and fight and battle.”
In Manning’s second game at the helm, the Terrapins upset then-No. 20 Florida at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. To some, that win confirmed why Maryland was a preseason top-25 team and showed its potential. Instead, with every conference loss since, that win now looks more like an outlier.
At 8-7 overall and 0-4 in the Big Ten, Maryland now faces an uphill climb to make the NCAA Tournament — a trek that may be insurmountable when looking at the team’s remaining schedule. The rest of Maryland’s 16 games are against conference opponents, and while contests against Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin last week combined for a tough stretch, it doesn’t get much easier. Still remaining on the Terrapins’ schedule are No. 7 Purdue, No. 25 Illinois, two games against No. 10 Michigan State and two contests versus No. 16 Ohio State.
“These losses are making us better. We’re right there, we just have to get over this last hump,” said Julian Reese, a freshman forward who averages 18 minutes per game off the bench.
Starting the season as a first-year assistant under Turgeon, Manning, 55, is new to the Terrapins and the Big Ten, but he obviously isn’t new to college basketball. As a premier basketball name — an NCAA champion as a player at Kansas, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1988 NBA draft and a two-time All-Star in the NBA — Manning’s name carries weight in the sports world.
After he retired from the NBA, he spent 10 years as an assistant at Kansas before head coaching stints at Tulsa and Wake Forest — the latter from which he was fired after the 2019-20 season. He took the next year off before deciding to return this season when his friend and former Kansas teammate, Turgeon, asked him to join his staff. Turgeon, who resigned two days following a home loss to Virginia Tech after which some Maryland fans chanted for his firing, told Manning that he still believed the team was “close,” but that the Terrapins needed a “new voice.”
Manning said the biggest adjustment for him so far has been learning the “intricate details” of the systems that each coach in the Big Ten runs.
“What I’m adjusting to in the Big Ten is the different personalities of the coaches,” Manning said. “Each coach has a different personality in a sense of what they’re trying to run and accomplish out there on the court.”
Manning’s first game as interim coach was a 67-61 loss against Northwestern — the same team the Terrapins hope to get back on track against Wednesday. Maryland then won three straight nonconference games against Florida, Lehigh and Brown before the three-game skid last week.
Maryland hasn’t played horribly in any of the last three games, but the Terrapins just simply haven’t played well enough to win. In all three contests, the Terrapins came out sluggish and allowed their opponents to take an early lead — the same criticism many had of Turgeon’s teams since he took over in 2011.
“I don’t like it when we give up such an early lead like we did, but we’ve shown that we have the wherewithal to claw and scratch and get back into the ball game,” Manning said Sunday after the team’s 70-69 loss to then-No. 23 Wisconsin.
Manning also said after the game that he believes the Terrapins are “close to turning the corner.” Senior guard Eric Ayala, the team’s veteran leader and top scorer at 15.5 points per game, gave a similar sentiment after the defeat, saying he believes the team just needs one win to “hit the ground running.”
Ayala and fellow returning starters Donta Scott and Hakim Hart aren’t new to a slow start in conference play. Last season, the Terrapins bounced back from a 1-5 start in Big Ten play to make the NCAA Tournament.
“We do have some guys who have experienced this to a certain degree and can provide some leadership to our new guys,” Manning said. “There are still a lot of conference games left, but we can’t go out and not take advantage of each one that we have.”
Correction: In an earlier version of this story, one of the places where Danny Manning worked was listed incorrectly. He had head coaching stints at Tulsa and Wake Forest.