WASHINGTON (CBSDC) – When Maryland last played in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, Mark Turgeon was also in the big dance as the second-year coach at Texas A&M. The Tea Party had yet to compete in an election. All of the current Terps were in high school.
Maryland’s four-year absence from the NCAAs is just a year shy of its longest streak over the last four decades and that previous downturn included two seasons when the program was on probation and ineligible for the tournament.
So after missing out on an NCAA bid last March despite a 22-12 record (that would wind up 25-13 after they advanced to the NIT semifinals), third-year coach Turgeon’s young Terps are determined to return to the major national postseason stage.
“Knowing that we went that far in the NIT and had a chance to win it shows how good our team should be this year,” said Charles Mitchell, who with fellow sophomore big man Shaquille Cleare will attempt to make up for the early departure of 7-foot-1 center Alex Len for the NBA. “I feel like this year’s team is better because of all the athletes and the talent we got.”
Junior swingman Dez Wells, the acknowledged team leader, said the Terps, who are practicing at 8 AM this fall, have better chemistry and a sense of urgency they didn’t have last year when he, Cleare, Mitchell, sophomore point guard Seth Allen and sophomore swingman Jake Layman were all new to College Park.
That adjustment to college for all but Xavier transfer Wells showed when Maryland followed a 12-1 start against mostly inferior non-conference competition by going just 8-10 in the ACC in a down year for the conference which sent just four schools to the NCAAs. The Terps’ pair of victories over second-ranked Duke, another over tournament-bound N.C. State and three tight games with powerful North Carolina and Miami were offset by the two losses each to Florida State and Virginia and the single upsets by Boston College and Georgia Tech.
“Most certainly,” said the still 18-year-old Allen when asked if Maryland was going to the big dance come March. “You think about all the games we let slip out of our hands: Georgia Tech, Boston College, two Florida State [defeats by five points combined]. If we had won one of those, it would’ve been a whole different season. Making just the NIT, it hurt. This year, our mindset is the tournament.”
Turgeon, who guided Wichita State and then A&M to the NCAA in five of his final six seasons before coming to Maryland in May 2011, believes the Terps’ time is now even though their only senior is walk-on guard John Auslander.
“It’s just the next natural step,” said Turgeon, not far from where the 2002 national championship trophy is on display at Comcast Center. “It feels right. I feel like I have a really good basketball team with a lot of pieces that fit together. It would’ve been nice to sneak in [to the NCAAs] last year, but we didn’t deserve it. We didn’t win enough games that we were supposed to win. We’re on the right track, maybe a little further ahead than I thought we’d be, [but] this is a huge year for us.”
In Turgeon’s first year at Wichita, the Shockers went 9-19. The next year with an overhauled roster, they finished .500. In year three, they went to the NIT. It took two more NIT trips before they finally reached the NCAAs.
Turgeon’s first year at Maryland was an amalgam of his first two at Wichita as the Terps went 17-15. Last year was like his third, fourth and fifth there. Can he achieve in just three years in College Park what it took him six years to accomplish on the prairie?
It won’t be easy given that the ACC has added NCAA perennials Syracuse, Notre Dame and Pitt to an arsenal that includes always-stalwart Duke and North Carolina and the rising programs at Virginia and Boston College. Include Maryland and that would mean eight NCAA teams, twice as many as were invited last March.
“We have to play well in the league if we want to get to where we want to be,” said Turgeon, knowing the ACC didn’t do the Terps any favors by having them face the Blue Devils and Tar Heels on the road, but not at home, during their final league season before they bolt for the Big Ten next year. “There’s like 12 really, really good teams in this league that have a chance to be a part of postseason. We haven’t been very good in the league the last two years. That’s really what’s important if you want to play in the NCAA Tournament.”
But when he was asked if the addition of Syracuse, Notre Dame and Pitt means that the ACC measuring sticks are no longer just Duke and Carolina, Turgeon smiled and said, “They gotta think about us, too.”
If that’s the case, it should be a happier winter in College Park.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin.