Maryland men’s basketball concluded its season Monday with a 96-77 loss to No. 2 seed Alabama in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, officially bringing an end to a decade of Mark Turgeon basketball in College Park.
Turgeon has become one of the most debated head coaches in the sport. Modern Maryland fans are divided by pro-extension and pro-firing camps, and the rest of the country seems to watch in awe as each camp rolls out from under its shell with every win or loss.
I began following Maryland closely when I began as a student in 2013. I have watched eight of Turgeon’s 10 seasons in College Park, and they have been quite a thing to experience. I can’t come from the perspective of a lifelong Maryland fan, but I’ve watched almost every game for eight years, covered the team during the 2016-17 campaign, and have spoken to a wide array of Maryland fans young and old about this program.
To help non-Maryland fans (and some Maryland fans) understand what’s going on with Mark Turgeon, I’ve put together this guide to the current situation he and the men’s basketball program find themselves in, fit with both sides of the argument for keeping or leaving the coach.
Ten Years of Turg – How Did We Get Here?
When Mark Turgeon left Texas A&M to replace Gary Williams at Maryland in 2011, the Terps were coming off a 19-14 season without a postseason appearance. In fact, since Williams led the Terps to the Sweet 16 in 2003, Maryland was hardly an NCAA Tournament regular, appearing in four of eight tournaments from 2004 to 2011 and failing to advance beyond the second round. The team did win the ACC Tournament in 2004, but the next-best run under Williams would be a semifinals appearance in 2009.
This context is important to understand. Williams took Maryland to its first Final Four in program history in 2001, then followed it up with the first national championship in program history in 2002. He is incredibly well regarded among Maryland circles, but there was a clear drop off after 2004, and Williams’s dislike of recruiting and how that world evolved was a big part of it.
This was the program Turgeon inherited. It can be easy to remember the back-to-back Final Fours in 2001 and 2002 and think that was what the Texas A&M boss was walking in to. He was not.
The Early Years
It was a slog to start. Maryland went 17-15 in Turgeon’s first season, then 25-13 with an NIT Semifinal appearance after spending the season on the bubble. The next season, Turgeon’s third, was my first on campus and the first team I watched religiously.
The 2013-14 team was atrocious. It had some talent, but it was mostly raw. There wasn’t much of an identity, especially offensively (remember this). I distinctly remember a home loss to Boston University in the non-conference that was as bad as it sounds. Maryland finished seventh in the ACC in its final season in the conference and became fodder for schools staying in the conference as the Terps lost often in their final tour of the league. Maryland fans were not pleased.
After the season ended, five players transferred out of the program – Nick Faust, Seth Allen, Roddy Peters, Shaq Cleare and Charles Mitchell. Maryland looked like it was in a tailspin, and it was unclear how well it would compete in the Big Ten, a new conference that posed different challenges.
Melo Trimble’s freshman year in 2014-15 was transformative for this program.
He was the first McDonald’s All-American Maryland had signed in more than a decade, and he was local. There was plenty of hype, and he surpassed it.
Trimble posted 16.2 points per game, 3.0 assists and 1.3 steals, but most importantly averaged 6.9 free-throw attempts per game and shot 86.3 percent from the charity stripe. His ability to get to the line was the best offense Maryland had, and the team relied on it heavily.
That’s not to say that team didn’t have others contributing in big ways. Jake Layman and Dez Wells were important compliments, and Richaud Pack proved to be a valuable grad transfer. Out of seemingly nowhere, Maryland climbed to second in the Big Ten and gave an incredible Wisconsin team that would lately narrowly lose in the national championship games one of its only losses of the season.
But this team was not as good as it appeared. The Terps finished the season at No. 33 in KenPom, ranking 56th and 41st in offense and defense, respectively, and second in the entire country in luck. The offense remained a problem, with tons of passes around the perimeter and chucks from deep seemingly part of the game plan. Trimble’s individual prowess at getting to the line propelled the team to a lot of wins it wouldn’t have otherwise had. The season culminated in a Big Ten Tournament Semifinals showing, a No. 4 seed, first-round win in the tournament over No. 13 seed Valparaiso that maybe shouldn’t have been, and second-round loss to No. 5 West Virginia after Trimble was knocked out of the game and the Terps really had no response.
Even though this team wasn’t as good as it may have seem, it marked Maryland’s return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five years and came out of nowhere. Fans were thrilled to see the Terps compete again, and fans were highly defensive of what the underlying stats said about the team, illustrating what the fan base’s mindset was like at the time.
2015-16 Disappoints Massively
The adage at Maryland was that if you could combine Turgeon’s recruiting with Williams’s coaching, national titles would pour in. Turgeon put together a collection of incredible talent leading up to the 2015-16 season, with Trimble and Layman returning, adding Rasheed Sulaimon and Robert Carter (who had to sit out the 2014-15 campaign) in the transfer market and signing Diamond Stone, a top-10 ranked recruit in the Class of 2015. Maryland was preseason top five. It seemed like the Terps of old were back, and there was a massive buzz around the program.
And then the season happened. In many instances, the team would merely out-talent opposition, muddling through wins because one player would take over and while the rest appeared lost and confused. The third game of the season – a home date with Rider – was a massive struggle and set off alarms for Maryland fans. Terps fans continued to watch a team that would not live up to its potential, and much of that would be blamed on the coaching.
Still, Maryland was 22-3 in early February and in line for a top seed. There were serious questions about why this team wasn’t excelling like expected, but the wins were there. Then, the team lost four of its final six regular season games and was bounced in its second Big Ten Tournament game. One of those defeats was at Minnesota, which had no won a Big Ten game until beating No. 6 Maryland on Feb. 18, and the others were lopsided failures to Wisconsin, at Indiana, and close losses at Purdue and to Michigan State in the conference tournament.
In other words, one of the most talented Maryland teams ever limped into the NCAA Tournament, and much of its talent seemed to have regressed from past seasons. It was given a No. 5 seed and a first-round date with No. 12 seed South Dakota State and Mike Daum. The Terps managed to survive, 79-74, and were not convincing at all in the process. The same problems – disjointed offense, turnovers, scoring droughts, poor shot selection – persisted. But a lucky break came when No. 13 seed Hawaii upset No 4 seed California, meaning Maryland would play another double-digit seed to return to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2003. The Terps won, 73-60, though the final score did not indicate how close this game was. Again, there weren’t many signs that the issues had been solved, or even really addressed.
Maryland faced No. 1 seed Kansas in the Sweet 16 and was never really in the game, which ended 79-63. That closed the book on a team that fans thought could contend for a Final Four even a month before. College Park wasn’t thrilled. This was the beginning of a portion of the fan base souring on Mark Turgeon.
Turgeon found more high-end talent in the offseason and did a lot to replace what was lost from the 2015-16 season. A freshman class of Anthony Cowan, Justin Jackson and Kevin Huerter was outstanding, and with Trimble still around, there was plenty of talent on the roster yet again. With how young the team was, not a ton was expected, but Maryland was 20-2 on Jan. 31 and off to one of the best starts in program history.
But a lot of the same problems from past teams continued, and worst of all, the March woes struck again. After winning 20 of 22 games, the Terps lost five of nine to close the regular season. The Big Ten Tournament was held in D.C. for the first time, an olive branch from the conference to one of its newest members. Maryland lost, 72-64, to Northwestern in its first game of the tournament. It was given a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament, naming because of how well the team played on the road during the year. The Terps fell, 76-65, to No. 11 seed Xavier in the first round after taking 27 threes while shooting 25.9 percent from beyond the arc and getting outrebounded, 32-20.
The next season might as well have not happened. It was a transitional team, and the 19-13 record was generous for how not good the squad was. When I talk about Maryland with other fans, most people don’t even remembered the 2017-18 season happened.
But Maryland was back for 2018-19, with another massive get in Jalen Smith, a top-20 recruit in the Class of 2018, joining the squad. Cowan was a junior and greatly improved, Bruno Fernando was a sophomore, and some of the pieces of the current team were early on in their time the program, like Eric Ayala, Aaron Wiggins and Darryl Morsell.
For the first time in Turgeon’s College Park career, he began making noticeable adjustments during games. The team would play to its strengths rather than settling on the perimeter and properly utilized the two-headed monster Fernando and Smith created inside. Shot selection became better. The offense was the most balanced it had ever been. There were still problems, but strides had clearly been made, and Turgeon had seemed to have learned from past mistakes.
But again, late-season woes struck. Maryland was 16-3 on Jan. 18. By March 8 and the conclusion of the regular season, the team was 22-9. Then, the Terps fell victim to almost-.500 Nebraska in their first game of the Big Ten Tournament, looking bad in the process. College Park expected the same collapse as usual.
As a No. 6 seed, Maryland scraped by in a hard-fought contest versus No. 11 seed Belmont, 79-77, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It was the first tournament win for the Terps in three years and the highest seed Mark Turgeon had beat at Maryland. The Terps played a very good game in the second round against No. 3 seed LSU, losing on a buzzer beater that included four steps (but who’s counting?), 69-67. It was a toss up game that could have gone either way, but it concluded another season without a Sweet 16 appearance or really any serious relevance in the national landscape.
COVID-19 Steals Turgeon’s Best Team
The 2019-20 Maryland team was the best Mark Turgeon has had in his 10 years at the school. Smith and Cowan were one of the best one-two punches in the country. Turgeon developed an outstanding pick-and-roll offense centered around those two, and it mostly worked very well. Morsell, Ayala, Wiggins and Donta Scott rounded out the role players and generally played to their strengths, a far cry from Turgeon-coached teams of the past.
Maryland still experienced some last-season issues, dropping three of its last five to end the regular season. It needed just one more win in the final five to clinch the outright Big Ten title but could only get two Ws, narrowly holding onto a share of the crown. It required a ridiculous comeback and miracle three from Morsell to get the win at Minnesota in the fourth-to-last game, another example of luck and/or struggle wins going in Maryland’s favor. But still, it happened, and this was unquestionably the best team Turgeon created in College Park.
Then COVID-19 hit, and the 2019-20 team didn’t get to play in the Big Ten Tournament or NCAA Tournament. Failures in both events have been the biggest blight against Turgeon, and he didn’t get to take his best squad to them. To me, some Maryland fans overrated this team. I saw it was an Elite Eight-level team with a Final Four possible but not likely. Still, that’s quite a step up from anything College Park has seen in well more than a decade and would have done wonders for what people thought of Mark Turgeon had it happened. Instead, a shared Big Ten regular season championship, some individual player recognitions and a 24-7 record is all we got.
Maryland lost Smith and Cowan after last season, and with transfers and misses in the transfer portal and on the recruiting trail, the talent on the 2020-21 roster was severely limited. For the first half of the this season, the team was bad. There’s no way around it. No inside presence, no point guard, no depth – it was a mess.
Halfway through the year, Turgeon completely changed the team’s path. He massively shortened the rotation, he rewrote the offense and shifted the focus to defense first. This is a team playing six wings, a big man who can’t catch the ball and a walk on. That’s the reality of this team, and basically through coaching, it went from 10-10 on Feb. 8 to an NCAA Tournament bid after winning five in a row and picking up a must-have over Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament. Then, this team managed to pull off a win in the NCAA Tournament over No. 7 seed UConn, 63-54, after getting wiped by Alabama on Monday. Without question, the 2020-21 was Turgeon’s best coaching job in terms of Xs and Os, player management and game planning. For the first time in his 10 years at Maryland, he got the absolute best he possibly could have out of the players under his guise.
However, there are legitimate criticisms to be made that the roster shouldn’t look like this to begin with. A combination of poor recruiting and not preparing for certain transfers led to this roster, and that’s something that should be noted.
The Mark Turgeon Crossroads
Maryland now finds itself at a crossroads. Mark Turgeon is under contract through the 2022-23 season, meaning next year would be the second-to-last of his deal. This is now the time in a contract where a decision is either made to sign a coach to an extension or let him go, as recruiting with the uncertainty of who will led a program for years to come can become difficult to impossible. Therefore, Maryland is approaching a time where a decision must be made either way.
These are the realities: in 10 years, Mark Turgeon has taken the Terps to five tournaments in nine tries (would be six in 10 attempts had 2020 had a March Madness), won one share of a Big Ten regular season title, has beat one single-digit seed in the NCAA Tournament, gone 5-5 in the event and reached one Sweet 16. He is 3-6 in the Big Ten Tournament and was 3-3 in the ACC Tournament. This is all while bringing several NBA draft picks through the program throughout the decade, so the talent has been there.
Is that good enough for Maryland? I don’t think many Maryland fans would say yes.
But there’s more to consider. I was a large critic of Turgeon’s coaching before these last three seasons. Adjustments were non-existent. The same problems – turnovers, awful shot selections, poor ball movement, an evergreen light for bad shooters, a misutilization of players’ strengthens, an inability to handle zone defenses and more – were evident year after year no matter what the roster looked like. That told me those weren’t personnel problems, they were down to the common denominator: Mark Turgeon.
But slowly over these past three seasons, Turgeon’s in-game coaching and game planning abilities have greatly improved. He still makes mistakes, but there have been times where tweaks he’s made have proven to make a huge difference. In 2019-20, the use of a zone at times made a giant difference, and the amount of bad shots Maryland has taken the last three seasons has shrunk massively, particularly in the second half of 2020-21. This last season in particularly was one of the best college coaching jobs I’ve seen in recent years, and I believe Turgeon got the absolute best out of the team, which is the exact opposite of every single season before. His energy on the sidelines was completely different. Turgeon truly led this team and took control of the season, whereas in years past it’s felt more like he was reacting to events as they happened and didn’t have control. He also never got to take his best team to March, and a Final Four or more was reasonably in the cards.
There is a case for firing him, and there is a case for extending him. Funny enough, I would have been aboard the fire train about five years ago, but I would now prefer an extension because of the clear improvements in his coaching over the last three years. The leash is short, though – one Sweet 16 in 10 years in not okay, and simply getting to the tournament shouldn’t be enough for College Park. Based on location, history, fan support and more, Maryland is a top 20 coaching job in the country. To use an apt example, Nate Oats, who took over at Alabama two years ago, has already turned it into a national title contender. If Maryland were to open up its coaching position, someone of that capability should be interested. I would want to sign him to an extension with a low buyout, making it relatively easy to fire him if next season goes poorly. Putting the long-term future in his hands does make me nervous.
Here is the reality: Mark Turgeon is an above average coach, and he will produce above average results. Is that good enough for Maryland? We shall find out.