Three seasons in, the Mark Turgeon era bore resemblance to a Mark Turgeon error.
The Maryland men’s basketball program was headed backward, with a pair of 17-win seasons sandwiching the NIT appearance in his second year, 2012-13. Players were transferring at a dizzying rate, a starting lineup’s worth prior to this season.
Those results weren’t close to athletic director Kevin Anderson’s expectations when he plucked the coach from Texas A&M, where in four seasons Turgeon never missed the NCAA tournament or won fewer than 24 games.
Questions were sufficient enough to prompt a vote of confidence: “I totally support Mark,” Anderson told reporters in May as the Big 10 announced that the Terrapins will host the 2017 conference tournament. “We have a great team coming back and great recruits coming in, and we’ll continue to be Maryland basketball.”
One year later, Maryland basketball has never been better in a sense.
The Terps set a school record for regular-season wins with a 64-61 victory Sunday night at Nebraska, improving to 26-5. No other team in Turgeon’s 17 years as a head coach has ever won more than 26 games, a feat equaled by his 2005-06 Wichita State squad, which advanced to the Sweet 16.
“We found out (Saturday) that we had a chance to set a record, most wins in a regular season, and we really dialed in,” Turgeon told reporters Sunday after Maryland’s seventh consecutive victory, a day before he was named Big 10 coach of the year by the league’s media.
“I think because that number was sitting out there, we stayed focused and kept trying to get it done.”
They’re far from matching the 2001-02 national championship team. But they’re nowhere near the fate (10th place in their new conference) predicted by preseason prognosticators. Instead, Maryland is the No. 2 seed in the Big 10 tournament and projected as a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Like most of this season, Sunday was about the players most responsible for reversing the program’s course and cooling off Turgeon’s seat, senior wing Dez Wells and freshman point guard Melo Trimble.
The latter scored a team-high 26 points and grabbed seven rebounds, including the carom after Nebraska missed a game-tying 3-pointer with three seconds left. Wells had a game-high 12 rebounds and 18 points, including a tightly-contested 18-footer to create the final margin with 8.8 seconds remaining.
Although Trimble grew up rooting for Maryland and considered it his dream school, getting the Upper Marlboro native on campus was no sure thing after the rash of transfers and resignation of former assistant coach Dalonte Hill. Turgeon stopped the bleeding when Trimble kept his longstanding commitment, which helped ease the pain from a year earlier when the Harrison twins chose Kentucky.
But for all the hard work in signing Trimble’s class – rated as a Top 5 group nationally with guard Dion Wiley and forward Jared Nickens – Turgeon and the Terps wouldn’t be here without a stroke of good/bad fortune.
Being accused of sexual assault and subsequently being kicked out of Xavier University as a freshman in 2012 was a terrible ordeal for Wells, who declared his innocence, sued the school and eventually settled out of court.
However, his tranferring to Maryland and the NCAA clearing him to play immediately was like winning the lottery for Turgeon. Wells and Trimble are the good luck charms he needed to balance the scale and overcome the departures of Seth Allen, Roddy Peters, Shaquille Cleare and Nick Faust last spring.
“It’s no fun, because you get blindsided,” Turgeon told reporters during the Big 10 announcement in May. “There’s still stuff going on out there. It’s not going to stop. … As a coach moving forward you just try to recruit the right ones, try to have the right chemistry. I think what helps though is winning, winning at a high level.”
Maryland has done just that in its inaugural Big 10 campaign. The Terps have risen to No. 10 in the Associated Press poll, their highest ranking since 2002-03, the season after Gary Williams won the program’s sole national title.
Trimble is one of two freshmen named a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, given annually to the nation’s best point guard. Wells’ combination of athletic explosiveness and fierce competitiveness has raised his stock as an NBA prospect. Forward Jake Layman actually could slide into the first round.
Meanwhile, the Terps continue to excel in close affairs; they improved to 10-0 in games decided by six or fewer points.
“It’s never going to be perfect, “Wells told the Baltimore Sun. “We’re never going to be playing against teams that we’re going to blow out. It’s not a team full of veterans. Everyone is still learning and we’re still hungry and trying to get the best out of this year.”
Two tournaments remain.
But several months after what appeared to be mission impossible with Turgeon, this season has become mission accomplished.