He led off with a joke and remained upbeat while fielding questions for the next 20 minutes. Mark Turgeon felt he had reason to be optimistic during his news conference at the Terrapins men’s basketball team’s media day on Oct. 8, after leading the Terps to the NIT semifinals the previous spring.
Entering the 2013-14 campaign with six returning contributors and several promising newcomers, the third-year coach had his sights set on an NCAA tournament appearance and a return to prominence for a Terps program just more than a decade removed from its only national championship.
“That is the next progression,” Turgeon said. “That’s what we plan to do. We’re going to have to stay healthy. We’re going to have to play really well. We’re going to have to get lucky. The basketball gods are going to have to be on our side — we’re going to have to get a few bounces. But I just think with recruiting and everything we’re doing here, it’s just the next natural step. And it feels right.”
But over the next five months, Turgeon’s plans unraveled. The Terps didn’t stay healthy. They often failed to get the bounce or the roll they needed to win crucial games. And for the fourth straight season, they didn’t earn an NCAA tournament berth, which Turgeon believed was within reach.
The Terps finished their final season in the ACC with a 17-15 overall record after losing five games by fewer than three points, including four against teams headed to the NCAA tournament. Those narrow misses cost the Terps on Selection Sunday, when they didn’t earn an invite to either the NCAA tournament or the NIT for the third time in four years.
The final demoralizing defeat, a 67-65 loss to Florida State on March 13 in the ACC tournament’s second round, seemed to epitomize the season. With the game tied in the final seconds, a tipped pass ended up in the hands of Seminoles center Boris Bojanovsky, who flushed home the game-winning dunk with 0.4 seconds left on the clock.
“It’s been happening all year to us,” forward Jake Layman said in a somber locker room in Greensboro Coliseum. “The ball just hasn’t been bouncing our way.”
The Terps’ first unlucky break came 10 days before the season opener when starting point guard Seth Allen broke a bone in his left foot during practice.
Allen missed the first 12 games, and the Terps trudged to a 7-5 record without him. All-ACC third-team selection Dez Wells, who finished the season averaging a team-high 14.9 points, moved out of his natural position on the wing to assume the starting point guard role and produced mixed results.
With Wells out of position and the team struggling to find a consistent interior presence while center Shaquille Cleare and forward Charles Mitchell turned in uneven production, the Terps suffered discouraging losses to Oregon State and Boston at home.
The Terps also had the chance to top two nonconference opponents that qualified for the NCAA tournament, but they lost on the final possession both times. Wells’ potential game-winning shot rimmed out against then-No. 18 Connecticut in the season opener, and George Washington guard Maurice Creek nailed a game-winning jumper to top the Terps in Washington on Dec. 8.
“I’m so proud of the effort we give every game,” Cleare said after the season-ending loss to Florida State. “But the tables never turned our way.”
Allen returned in time for the bulk of conference play, and the Terps showed flashes of improvement. But missed opportunities late in games led to another string of heartbreaking losses.
Mitchell had a potentially game-winning shot trickle off the rim in a two-point loss at then-No. 8 Duke on Feb. 15, nine days before the Terps lost a two-point game against then-No. 4 Syracuse.
After losing the nail-biter to Syracuse, Turgeon said he never experienced a season with so many frustrating losses. In their next game, the Terps lost at Clemson in a double-overtime contest they led late.
“Clemson was as devastating as it gets,” Turgeon said a week later. “We had to walk up three flights of stairs. It felt like 100 after that game.”
The Terps finally earned a break from their devastation by topping then-No. 5 Virginia, the ACC champion, in their regular-season finale and the final ACC game at Comcast Center before this university’s move to the Big Ten. The satisfaction from the historically significant win was short-lived, though, as the Terps were knocked out of the ACC tournament in Greensboro, N.C., four days later.
In the locker room after the loss to the Seminoles, many Terps had their heads down, and they knew they left Turgeon’s preseason hopes unfilled. Though the Terps consistently came one play away from several victories that could have changed the course of their season, they ended up with same record as what many consider to be a much less talented team posted in Turgeon’s first year.
And a program that made the NCAA tournament each year from 1994 to 2004 missed out on the nation’s premier postseason play for the seventh time in the past 10 years.
“Maryland basketball is much bigger than us,” Cleare said. “We felt that we didn’t take care of business this season, and we disappointed a lot of people. It hurts. It hurts a lot.”