Yet, as the media convened in Sprint Heritage Hall on Wednesday there was a different cleanliness to the Terps' 2011-2012 slate, one they hadn't experienced in over two decades of basketball. For the first time in 22 years, the fist-thrusting, vein-popping, legend that was Gary Williams was not at the podium as the head basketball coach at the University of Maryland. Instead, former Texas A&M coach Mark Turgeon, the new face of Maryland basketball, confidently strolled up to the stand to handle the anxious media.
In a coaching search that included high-tier names such as Jamie Dixon, Brad Stevens, Sean Miller and Jay Wright, Turgeon emerged from the crowd as Maryland's man for the job. In May when we announced that Mark Turgeon was going to be the new head basketball coach at the University of Maryland, the reaction was strong, it was positive and it happened from all over the country, said Director of Media Relations Doug Dull. We're looking forward to the upcoming season because he's here.
In the short 5 months that he has been with the program, Turgeon has already had to deal with a whirlwind of issues, from players leaving to go pro, to losing commits, to not even having enough scholarship players to field a scrimmage. Always stoic however, Turgeon has taken everything in stride and seemed apparently relieved that basketball had finally arrived.
It's hard to believe it's been 5 months since I stood here being introduced as the coach, said Turgeon. A lot has happened.
Wednesday was not only the first day Turgeon spoke with media at length as Maryland head coach, but it was also a chance for him to get his feet wet with the sometimes-daunting Baltimore/D.C. media. I had Gary Williams in my office / his old office this morning, and I said, 'Gary I've always had a lot of respect for you, but after my first media day I think I'll have unbelievable respect for you.' I said, 'How do you handle those creatures out there?' After settling in though, Turgeon realized he had nothing to worry about, yet. I'm on a honeymoon with the media here since I haven't lost a game yet, he announced. In the end, he realized, as most do, there are far worse things to worry about in the region than the media. The traffic is a real pain in ... this area, said Turgeon.
Other than the hallowed Beltway traffic, Turgeon has seemed to settle in nicely, as he attested to in his opening statements. The most difficult thing was getting my family here, he said. But everything has been great. The people have really accepted me. The players have been working hard for me. If there have been any surprises they have been pleasant.
It didn't take long however to get down to the task that lay ahead of the first-year Maryland coach: turning around a 19-14 team that returns a largely inexperienced 7 players and features a tentative 8 newcomers, including 6, yes 6 walk-on players. Yet, Turgeon is no stranger to turning around programs. A student of Larry Brown, Turgeon made his mark in the coaching world during his years at Wichita State (2000-2007). As the coach of the Shockers, Turgeon posted the 3rd most wins in school history and took WSU to the postseason in 4 consecutive years (2003-2006), the first time such a feat had been achieved in school history. In his 4 seasons at Texas A&M, Turgeon led his team to 4 straight NCAA tournament appearances, posting a 97-40 record and winning back-to-back Big 12 Coach of the Year honors (2010-2011). I've taken over programs that were in bad shape, said Turgeon. This program is not in bad shape. Okay, it's not. It's not where we want it to be and it's not where it was 10 years ago, but it's not in bad shape. So we're closer to where we need to be and from what I can gather, if players continue to buy in, which they have, we'll make the guys we have, better. We can add the right pieces and get this thing where everyone wants it to be as quickly as we can.
Turgeon will be far from alone in this rebuilding job however, as he played a major role in assembling an impeccable supporting staff this summer to help solidify Maryland as a force to be reckoned with right off the bat and further into the future. When one looks at the staff, it is hard to ignore the outstanding cast of recruiters the first year coach has put together.
Scott Spinelli, who has been an assistant at both Wichita State and Texas A&M, comes to Maryland after spending the last 5 seasons under the tutelage of Turgeon. Scott Spinelli has been with me a long time, said Turgeon. He knows exactly what I want. He's one of my coaches that can also coach on the floor and he'll do a lot of coaching especially as I teach the other assistants exactly how I want it. His job is first and foremost to go and get players.
Perhaps the one addition to the staff that has recruiting gurus salivating is Dalonte Hill, former assistant coach at Kansas State. A D.C. native, Hill was instrumental in helping KSU land the #1 recruiting class in 2006, highlighted by Michael Beasley and Bill Walker. With strong ties to the D.C. area, Turgeon is excited at the prospects of Hill's success on the local recruiting scene. Dalonte Hill is a local guy with a lot of connections, said Turgeon. He is going to go out and get the best players he can. Ultimately they come because of the head coach and the system but he gets involved in them. Dalonte has been great. He's a great guy and he loves being back home and at Maryland.
The last member of the super staff, Bino Ranson, is one of the lone parts of the Gary Williams regime that still remains in College Park. In only his second year at Maryland however, Ranson has played a big role right off the bat since Turgeon's arrival. Bino did a great job in getting Nick Faust, said Turgeon. He's a great guy and I've been watching him for a long time. One of the things I like about Bino is his confidence. Bino thinks he could recruit God.
Turgeon and his staff had their recruiting chops tested almost immediately upon his arrival in College Park, as prized 4-star recruit Nick Faust re-opened his commitment after the news of Gary William's departure. I think Nick just wanted to be recruited and they [his family] wanted to get to know me a little bit, said Turgeon. My first conversation with the mom wasn't good. She was very upset. I got her on the phone and she's screaming and yelling saying that she wants a release and I'm trying to keep her calm. She said, 'We just don't trust any coaches right now. Coach Williams said he was going to be here 2 or 3 more years.' You guys have heard the line, I said, 'Lisa, if Nick doesn't come here, I won't be here 2 or 3 years.' She laughed at that and loosened up. Nick was always very important to us.
Including Faust, the 2011-2012 team features 8 newcomers, only adding more youth to an already inexperienced team. With such a lack of seniority and poise on the court, Turgeon's team was in desperate need of a team leader, and that is exactly what they got in senior guard Sean Mosley.
The 2nd leading scorer in Maryland high school history, Mosley suffered through what he called his worst season of basketball last year, averaging a mere 8.1 ppg and 3.8 rpg in his junior campaign. The lone senior with any significant experience, Mosley was forced into the spotlight early on by his new coach. Sean is a great kid, said Turgeon. He is one of the best I have been around even in the short time I have known him. From day one in our first team meeting, I made him speak. I have been very impressed with him. He's shown great leadership. He knows his teammates better than I do so he can help me out a lot. I had him in my office earlier and I was asking him some questions about the players that were here last year. He is a leader as well as a coach and player right now. I'm going to lean on Sean a lot.
The hot topic on the afternoon was the status of freshman Alex Len, a late offseason pickup from Ukraine. The 7-foot-1 Len has yet to be cleared to play by the NCAA and is in the process of going through the NCAA clearinghouse, a process Turgeon hopes will be coming to an end quite soon. I think we are getting close, said Turgeon. I think when we get the word, which hopefully will come Friday, I think it will be swift movement from there. If and once Len is cleared to play for the Terps, Turgeon is excited about the dimension the big man will bring to his otherwise undersized squad. Alex is extremely skilled and long, said Turgeon. I think one of the things he does well is he blocks shots and plays at a high level on the defensive end. We haven't been able to see that yet since we haven't scrimmaged a lot. He is a quick learner and a bright kid, but I'm not sure when the light bulb will come on for him. When it comes on, it will be an instant change.
If however, the Terps are without Len for any portion of the season, they will very noticeably undersized and outweighed in the frontcourt, with a pole-thin 6-foot-10 Berend Weijs being their tallest option. Size however, is not at the top of Turgeon's list of concerns. I'm not worried about our size, he said. There will be a couple of teams we don't matchup with but everything really changed for us in August. We lost Hawk [Haukur Palsson] so we were a smaller team. But then hopefully we've added Alex. So we went from a small team to a much bigger team. We have big guards in Nick Faust and Sean Mosley and Pe'Shon's a big kid. The thing I am concerned about is our ball handling, our strength and our decision-making. Obviously everything is new to these young men, so they're going to struggle a little bit.
When looking at the numbers put up last season by sophomore guards Terrell Stoglin and Pe'Shon Howard, Turgeon has due cause to be concerned about his guard play. The two combined last year for 131 turnovers, with Stoglin's 75 leading the team. Despite his shaky ball handling, Stoglin emerged as a scorer late last season, averaging 11.4 ppg, good for second on the team. While he recognizes that the young point guard will be one of his go-to scoring options, Turgeon is quick to point out that he will not allow Stoglin's game to be so one-dimensional. If Terrell is making shots he will have some more freedom, said Turgeon. We need Terrell to score. But you're definition of freedom is different from my definition of freedom. The thing that I have talked to Terrell about is that he can't just be a scorer. He has to do everything. He has to learn how to play without the ball in his hands. Terrell is great with the ball in his hands. I was fortunate enough to watch Larry Brown coach Allen Iverson, and I'm not comparing Terrell to Allen Iverson. I watched him and he took Allen off the ball to get pressure off of him but Allen was still a part of every possession. Hopefully I can take some pressure off Terrell but still have him be part of every possession.
A pleasant surprise to this point in the preseason, according to Turgeon, has been the emergence of redshirt freshman forward Ashton Pankey, who sat out all of last season with a serious leg injury he had sustained his senior year of high school. Ashton is pain free when he plays, said Turgeon. He hasn't been pain free in a long time. From what I see, he is by far our best rebounder. He played for a great high school coach in Bob Hurley and I imagine he'll be great on defense, especially team defense.
In terms of installing a system, Turgeon is taking it one day at a time. He has made it clear in the past that his team will play an aggressive man-to-man defense, with the occasional trap. The transition into a totally new system has been difficult though; thanks in large part to the man in charge himself. I know this sounds crazy but I actually confuse my teams early, said Turgeon. I throw a lot at them and see who's going to sink and who's going to swim. Right now there's a lot of guys confused because it's new to all of them and there's not enough guys that know the system to do it.
On the offensive side of things, Turgeon and his staff are still figuring out the dynamics of the team. Once I figure out my team, which I might not totally do until January or February, we'll get to the offense as quickly as we can. I have a good feel though. When I came here everybody told me my big guys weren't very good and my guards were great. My bigs aren't as bad as everybody thought and my guards aren't as good as everybody thought, from what I can tell. We're just putting in the whole method and continuing to add some things. Right now, it's ugly.
Turgeon acknowledged the media's low expectations for this year's team, but isn't letting it get to him or his players. I don't worry about it, he said. I told Gary [Williams] this morning how much better the young guys have gotten. It's the best time of the year to be a coach because I have eight guys on scholarship and they all think they're starting. The next four or five weeks are exciting for me. I don't think there has been that much negativity. What the magazines have come out and said hasn't hurt our recruiting. Maryland has been great for a long time and will be great in the future.
Of course, the news conference wasn't complete until Turgeon spoke about conference realignment. Turgeon, who was a part of a school that many feel started off the conference shuffle in Texas A&M, gave his two cents on the subject. I've followed it a lot, he remarked. I was happy with the ACC and what they did. They added two great basketball programs and solid football programs. It solidifies our league. I came to Maryland to coach in the ACC and to coach in the best conference. As a coach you can say this is going to be fantastic because all the players are going to want to play in this league eventually. On Selection Sunday, it's pretty nice when you're getting 8 or 9 teams in instead of 3.
For right now however, Turgeon is taking things one step at a time, beginning with the official kickoff to the season this Friday with the 40th annual Maryland Madness event. I think four of the five starters from the national championship team will be on the floor, said Turgeon. Hopefully that will create a huge buzz. That night should always be about the players. The first year it will be a little about me. They may introduce me differently this year and put a microphone in my hand. After that it's about the team, the former players and the fans. Hopefully we have a great student turnout. I have been on the phone with Lefty [Driesell] and Gary [Williams] and it's exciting for me to be where it [Midnight Madness] started. We want to create a buzz but I would rather create a buzz in January or February.