Maryland basketball coach Mark Turgeon was faced with one last question before departing on the six-day-long Christmas break.
“How do you feel about your team going into conference play?” a reporter asked after the Terrapins’ 88-72 win over Charlotte on Tuesday.
Despite the turbulent 12-1 start that’s featured six wins by six points or less, and three wins by a single point, in a mediocre out-of-conference schedule, it didn’t take much thought for Turgeon to answer.
“I feel great about my team,” he said. “I really do.”
The answer, though appearing in quotations as a sugar-coated cliche, came off genuine.
Turgeon has his reasons to “feel great,” for sure. The rebuilding stage is in the rearview mirror. Tuesday’s win marked the third year in a row Maryland is 12-1 through 13 games.
There’s also a clear identity, steered by Turgeon, that rides the new wave of versatile, jump-shooting basketball.
Even though four starters from last year’s underwhelming Sweet 16 run are long gone, bluechip point guard Melo Trimble is still steering the ship (17.7 points per game). Trimble is also flanked by Maryland’s nucleus, three freshmen who fit Turgeon’s vision of lean and versatile — 6-foot combo guard Anthony Cowan (10.2 points, 3.7 assists per game), 6-foot-7 wing Kevin Huerter (7.0 points, 5.3 rebounds per game) and 6-foot-7 forward Justin Jackson (11.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.9 blocks per game).
They even have a hashtag specifically for them — #NewJAKCity.
Next Tuesday, Dec. 27, Maryland’s Big Ten play begins against Illinois. Last year at this time, the Terrapins were ranked No. 4 in the nation, and then No. 15 in 2014, both by the Associated Press. But Maryland is not ranked, for the time being, heading into conference play next week.
Their resume isn’t exactly stellar; only beating American and Towson by six, Saint Peter’s by 10 and squeezing out a six-point overtime win versus Richmond.
The computers sway toward Turgeon’s optimistic claim, unlike poll voters who leave Maryland hanging. ESPN has the Terrapins ranked No. 15 in RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) and CBS has them at No. 20.
Humans, ones who vote in the polls at least, aren’t fans of Maryland’s start. RPI-based computers, however, are.
Last year’s Maryland team that was supposed to be the most talented in over a decade finished with a 14th ranked RPI. Only one spot higher than where they stand now.
This year seems difficult to gauge from a consistency standpoint. Tuesday night’s matinee is the best example of this.
Turnovers early in possessions and a 3-for-15 shooting start had Maryland trailing, 32-22, more than 10 minutes into regulation.
Then, they magically got hot, converting 10-of-16 3-point-attempts in the second half to trample the 49ers, 66-40, the rest of the way.
Where do you even begin grading the 13-game start? An A because of a 12-1 record? A mid-C because the point margin against Division I opponents is only +7.9?
But maybe, just maybe, how you perceive Maryland’s first 13 games is along the lines of a glass-half-full, glass-half-empty mentality.
You can sit back and think having to overcome a nine-point deficit or larger five times just to win 12 games may spell trouble for the future; having to rely on frantic dashes to climb out of holes that may be too large to escape against teams like Indiana or Purdue. Or, storming from behind for almost half your wins is a sign of a composed, eager team who’s already battle tested going into the demanding months of January, February and March.
“They answer the bell every time,” Turgeon said Tuesday. “We’ve only lost one. We lost to a good team who played better than us that night.
“We’ve beat some good teams. We’ve responded. It starts soon, [Big 10 play], the 27th. … We’re just going to get better.”
Pittsburgh handed Maryland their only loss, 73-59, by disarraying Turgeon’s up-tempo, pro-shooting mold with a 3-2 zone. Maryland shot 34.4 percent (21-for-61) and 27.8 percent from deep (10-for-36). After the game, Turgeon begged for teams to keep zoning him. And even then, the weary Terrapins, who played five games in nine days at the time, cut a second half deficit that was 25 to 14.
It’s been the storyline all year, “Cardiac Terps,” as headlined on the second page of Tuesday night’s media packet.
In the second game of the season, Maryland pulled off an epic win against DMV rival Georgetown, 76-75, after trailing by seven with under one minute to go.
Five days later, on Nov. 20, Maryland gutted out a 71-66 win over Division I-AA Towson, who led for over 23 minutes and staked a 13-point second half lead.
On Nov. 25, Richmond, another Division I-AA opponent wreaking trouble, took Maryland into overtime. The Terrapins prevailed, 88-82. The following night, Maryland tightroped a 69-68 win over Kansas State, and then erased a 12-point gap for a 71-70 win over Oklahoma State on Dec. 3, a game the Terrapins only led for four minutes and seven seconds.
“Pretty much been the status quo for the Terps here. Fall behind, comeback,” Oklahoma State coach Brad Underwood said after the Terrapins drubbed his Cowboys.
To critics, the seesaw 13-game start isn’t telling when attempting to make optimistic predictions. I still don’t know what to think, honestly, but because of the unsteady notion, I tend to sway glass-half-empty.
“It’s good for us to compete right now,” junior guard Melo Trimble said after the Oklahoma State game. “Hopefully, when we make it to the [NCAA] tournament down the road, in those type of games, the further you get, the closer they are. So I’m glad we’re going through this now.”
Turgeon and Trimble could be bluffing by saying they “feel great” and “glad” to be tested early. We may never know. Turgeon has the resume to support his optimism. He vowed to keep the program afloat when succeeding long-time coach Gary Williams in 2011. He’s now 69-15 the past three seasons.
Questions arose when only one starter — Trimble — returned from a season ago. Turgeon filled the voids with three freshmen to match yet another 12-1 start.
After missing 40 shots in the 14-point loss to Pittsburgh to drop their season field goal percentage to 41.8 and 3-point percentage to 30.5, he dared teams to zone him. Since then, they’ve shot 40.2 percent from downtown, and 48.3 percent overall.
Now, he said “we’re just going to get better.”
Take Turgeon’s words or not, he’s called his shot before. Whether you interpret through a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty lens, all we can do is sit back and watch the most crucial stretch of the season unfold, and formulate pinpoint conclusions in March.