COLLEGE PARK, Md. – The rebirth of the Maryland basketball program under coach Mark Turgeon has thus far produced two baby steps.
When he took over for Gary Williams in 2011, Turgeon had little to work with yet still managed to win 17 games. Last year, Maryland went 25-13 and reached the semifinals of the NIT.
Now it's time for the Terps to grow up and play in March with the big boys. Nothing less than the school's first NCAA tournament appearance since 2010 will suffice for a team eager to create a lasting memory during its final season in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
"It's the next progression," Turgeon said. "I feel like we have a really good basketball team. If we stay healthy, that should happen for us."
Despite losing 7-foot-1 center Alex Len to the NBA, Maryland has six players back who started at least seven games last season. The bench is deep, too, leaving Turgeon with plenty of options even if injuries should occur.
"My first day on the job I had six players," Turgeon recalled. "We've done a lot of good things since then. We are on the right track."
Dez Wells, who led the team in scoring last year, returns at guard/forward and Seth Allen and Nick Faust make up a strong backcourt. Although Len is gone, 6-foot-9 sophomores Shaquille Cleare and 6-8 Charles Mitchell are very capable of jamming up the middle and pulling down their share of rebounds.
"I feel like we're just ready from the jump," Faust said. "We have actually guys who have been through it and have experience. That's why we feel as though this team can be something special."
Here are five things to know about the 2013-14 Maryland basketball team:
TURGEON RULES: Turgeon's winning percentage of .600 (42-28) is the best mark by a Maryland coach in his first two seasons, ahead of Bud Millikan (.592) and Williams (.574). Turgeon nurtured his young players during his first two years, but this season is different. "He's been more tough on guys, expects more," said forward Evan Smotryz, a transfer from Michigan who sat out last season.
WELLS TAKES CHARGE: Wells is the unquestioned leader of the team, a role he does not take lightly. "I'm very vocal. I speak my mind," Wells said. "I make sure everybody keeps themselves accountable and I'm making sure they're keeping me accountable with things that I'm not doing well." A transfer from Xavier, Wells grew with each passing game during his first season at Maryland. "As a leader, the difference is night and day," Turgeon said. "He's really trying, and he's doing it the right way."
TWO FOR ONE: The Terrapins hope two big men are better than one. Mitchell and Cleare won't always be on the court at the same time, but when they are the opposition will have to find their way around a combined 525 pounds of muscle. "I feel like me and Shaq bring two different games to the frontcourt," Mitchell said. "I'm a power forward, he's a big. We both take up space. Now you've got two big bodies at the same time. That's more rebounding, more defensive presence and an offensive presence."
FRESH BLOOD: Three freshmen hope to make an impact: 6-9 forward Demonte Dodd, 6-3 small forward A.J. Metz and guard Roddy Peters. None of them are slated to start — not at the outset, anyway. "The way I look at our team right now, I think we have seven-and-a-half starters," Turgeon said. "Pretty soon it will be eight when the young guys are ready. We can go a lot of different ways. As long as it is doing well for us, I can see us locking into one lineup."
ACC SWAN SONG: Before moving to the Big Ten, the Terrapins hope to give the ACC something to remember them by. "It's important to us, but it's more important to the fans and the community, everyone who loves Maryland basketball," Mitchell said. "You always want to leave a good memory. We should go out with a bang, show everybody who Maryland is in the ACC." The Terps beat Duke twice last season, the second time to reach the semifinals of the tournament. And this season? "Leaving the ACC, we definitely want to leave a mark," Faust said.