Several Terrapins men’s basketball players were pounding balls into the Comcast Center floor yesterday as coach Mark Turgeon stood near the baseline recalling the team’s up-and-down 2012-13 season.
“I think back to last year and just kind of shake my head that we were able to get 25 wins with such a young squad,” Turgeon said of a campaign in which six newcomers played major roles and the team reached the NIT semifinals.
But as the Terps open a new season tonight against No. 18 Connecticut at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., the team has entirely different expectations. While Turgeon was impressed with what the group accomplished last season, he concedes that inconsistent play kept the Terps from achieving greater goals.
Turgeon believes the team has matured since then. He watched the Terps improve down the stretch last season, and he has five returning contributors who will suit up tonight. The way Turgeon puts it, the program is ready to take “the next natural step” and reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010.
Tonight, the Terps can begin building their resume to do just that.
“I feel like I have a really good basketball team, a lot of pieces that fit together,” Turgeon said in October. “If we do our job, we stay healthy, we play well on game night, that should happen for us.”
Turgeon isn’t the only one who notices a different vibe around the Terps. Forward Jake Layman was one of four freshmen thrust into the rotation last season, and he remembers feeling like a “deer in headlights” when the team opened its campaign against Kentucky on the same court it’ll take tonight.
A year later, Layman’s much more at ease entering the season-opening matchup in Brooklyn.
“We have that year under our belt,” Layman said. “We feel more comfortable and ready to go in this situation.”
Many of the Terps’ rotational players have been working on the court together for more than a year, and each of the projected starters has played minutes at the college level.
That additional experience could help the Terps overcome their shortcomings, including uncertainty at point guard. With a broken foot sidelining starter Seth Allen for about two months, the Terps turn to Dez Wells, who led the team in scoring as a wing last season, to be the primary ball handler.
Huskies veteran guards Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier form one of the nation’s most heralded backcourts and present a stiff first challenge for Wells and backup Roddy Peters. So Turgeon said yesterday that the onus of handling UConn’s pressure falls on the entire team.
“As a team we’re getting better around them,” Turgeon said. “We’re making better decisions, so as a team, that helps take pressure off everybody.”
Allen’s injury also forces the Terps to play a bigger lineup, an adjustment that can create matchup problems for opponents while forcing several Terps to play out of position.
Still, the Terps claim they aren’t changing their approach to tonight’s game despite having a significant size advantage over the Huskies.
“We are going to play Maryland basketball,” center Shaquille Cleare said. “We are going to run our secondary break, and we are going to keep the little guys out of the paint, so we can keep the bigs out of foul trouble.”
Perhaps in the past, the Terps would have been in flux after losing a key component and would have struggled to adjust without Allen in the lineup. But the team believes it’s equipped to weather the loss of a starter this year.
“We’re so much more mature,” Turgeon said. “The guys that we are playing — the guys that we are counting on — have been through a lot.”
That’s been the message Turgeon has relayed throughout the preseason: This year will be different because of the added experience.
Tonight, the Terps finally get to put that confidence to the test — and they’ll do so against a perennial title contender in an NBA arena on national TV.
But the Terps insist that the spotlight won’t faze them. Not this year, anyway. They’ve seen it all before.
“I think we are just more calm and just ready for the situation,” Layman said. “A lot of us have been through it before, playing in front of a big crowd on a big stage. We’re more ready for this year.”