Think of this basketball offseason at Maryland as a bus ride. There were some stops and some starts and people got off the bus, and others got on.
But the bus kept on its route and now Mark Turgeon may be a lot closer to driving the Terrapins back to the NCAA Tournament than he was before. The veteran coach certainly won't throw any of his players, past or present under that bus, but there's no doubt he's counting on a smoother ride this season on the court than last year's disappointing 17-15 finish.
"I think with all the changes, we did a nice job of adding some really good pieces," he said June 26 in an interview with Terrapin Times. "We feel those pieces fit together."
He talked about how skilled the suddenly new-look Terrapins are, chock-full of long defenders, good shooters and ballhandlers, and players that "for the most part really know how to play, and have a really good feel for the game."
In talking about newcomers Melo Trimble, Dion Wiley, Jared Nickens, Richard Pack and even 7-foot Michal Cekovsky, Turgeon stressed how each player was a skilled passer. It's a subtle improvement but reflective of an area Maryland had to make a move – ballhandling and decision-making. The Terrapins' 12.8 turnovers per game were the second most in the ACC last year and would have ranked 12th in the Big Ten.
"Where I want our chemistry to improve is on the floor," Turgeon added. "Since I've been here we've had great chemistry off the floor. We've got along well, we've always had fun together but really, to me, it comes down to having chemistry on the floor and respect for each other's game, understanding and piecing all that together. The last few years we've been good but our chemistry hasn't always been as good as it needs to be to be successful."
Trimble is a big part of the answer, a pass-first point guard with a reputation for big plays in the clutch, he steps in for transferred Seth Allen at point guard, and is already a better facilitator, something that will help Dez Wells and Jake Layman, not to mention Cekovsky in the post.
"I think these incoming freshmen, even Cekovsky, have a great feel, they're good passers," said Turgeon. "And hopefully willing passers. I don't think there's any doubt with Jake and Dez, and you add these pieces, you should be pretty solid."
With Allen and four other transfers moving on, the Terrapins were able to add some much-needed experience this spring in senior guard Richaud Pack, a transfer from NC A&T, and then the big acquisition of 6-8 Robert Carter from Georgia Tech. When Carter comes to campus Monday, all 12 scholarship players will be here and working out on the court and in Director of Basketball Performance Kyle Tarp's conditioning programs.
Pack is a steadying influence, a solid shooter and with a maturity that Turgeon knows will help the team. He will also battle with Wiley for the third point guard slot behind Trimble and Wells, who has made ballhandling, decision-making and team defense the focus of his offseason.
"Dez is going to be one of our most important players again this year," said Turgeon. "We've had plenty of time to get him ready for that. He's been working on his handle, his decision-making. He's going to need to score for us. He knows that. His role is going to be significant. The better he handles it, the better his decision-making the more the ball is going to be in his hands."
Turgeon pointed out that Wells' turnovers dipped from 113 in 2012-13 to 79 last year, and he expects another drop this year. The other big perimeter threat, Layman, has also put in the work so far this offseason.
"The big thing with Jake is playing with confidence," said the coach. "That's something we've worked on. I think ballhandling and passing is something that really needs to get better. It has. Defensively, I think he needs to get better. He's doing a lot of footwork stuff to improve his mobility as a defender. The No. 1 thing is confidence, playing with confidence. If he does that, he's pretty good."
The biggest injury question mark this summer is freshman center Trayvon Reed, the 7-1 center diagnosed with a fractured ankle earlier this month. Turgeon said the Terrapins would take their time bringing the big man back.
"I'm guessing the earliest would be early August. I'm thinking more toward September. I'm sure we'll be cautious because he's so big, so tall. And there's no real hurry this time of year. I think there's another x-ray coming up the second week of July."
Turgeon loves Reed's "length" and his timing as a shot-blocker. "He'll be a great rim-protector for us," said the coach. "He likes to play defense, can really run the floor and finish around the rim. He has a nice touch, shoots free throws well."
Cekovsky can do those same things with a more proven offensive punch. "He's a special talent, very skilled," said Turgeon. "He can dribble and pass and shoot it. He's a unique player that can play both inside and out. He's really good around the rim with his left and right hand but can also step out and shoot well from 15-17 feet."
Turgeon said his Slovakian center was nimble enough to chase people on defense, and just has to adjust to the speed of the game. "He's a unique talent, nowhere near where he's going to be once we're able to start working with him and practicing all the time."
While Cekovsky can naturally improve the team defensively, the 6-2 Trimble should do the same offensively. "Melo is a smart player, a good player," said Turgeon. "He can score the ball but he also makes guys around him better. He has a great feel for the game. He's a winner. Defensively is probably where he has to go the furthest but he's pretty good.
"There will be a lot on his plate but I don't think there's any question he can handle it. He's ready to do it. These kids come out of high school today playing the top players in the country all the time. He's ready for it. He's been around Maryland basketball, watching it his whole life so he knows what he's getting into it."
The 6-4 Wiley has seen his stock go up with the departures of Allen, Nick Faust and Roddy Peters. He is in the mix for playing time now and reported to College Park in good shape.
"Dion's another kid that has a great feel, can score the ball in variety of ways," said Turgeon. "He can really shoot it when he gets hot. Coming off screens, spot-up shooting. He's also good at getting to the rim. Add a midrange game, and he's a really, really good passer. He brings a lot to the table. Like most freshmen he's got a ways to go defensively but he has all the tools and talent to be a great defender."
Jared Nickens, the 6-6 swingman from New Jersey, also has a load of potential. "Jared is another talented kid, can really shoot it, great midrange game, can really pass it," said Turgeon. "He's tall, 6-7 with shoes on. He can really pass it, sees over people. Has a great feel, has savvy. He is going to help us. He's going to be really good offensively. He has great length, understands how to play defense. He should be a good rebounder for us at that size. I'm not sure what his wingspan is but I know it's more than his height."
In summary, Turgeon sees all the freshmen helping this season. "You don't know how it's going to play out (when practice starts) but all the incoming freshmen should have significant roles."
Sophomore Damonte Dodd, the 6-11 sophomore, is also working into bigger impact. "He had a great spring," said the coach. "He was coming on during the season. His maturity level spring and summer has been great. He's just such a hard worker, the kid works hard. He has always been a good defender, a good shot-blocker. His offensive game is coming around a little bit this summer."
And speaking of hard work, 6-8 Jonathan Graham is one of the team's four seniors, one that has earned a place as a leader, too.
"The thing that Jon brings every day is energy and toughness, just working hard and doing what the coaches ask," said Turgeon. "He's tremendous with that. He has worked hard trying to become a better scorer. He brings what he brings, which is toughness and hard work."
Turgeon is counting on another senior, 6-9 Evan Smotrycz, to have a big season. In fact, that could be a key for the Terrapins. "I'm hoping he has a better year than he had last year, playing with confidence. We work on body language with Evan a lot. His body language got better late in the season. Just being a better leader, being a senior. We need him to score to stretch the defense.
"We need Evan to have a great year. If we're going to be one of the top teams in the Big Ten, Evan has to have a big year for us."
Smotrycz, of course is the only Terrapin that has actually played in the Big Ten. Turgeon characterized Maryland's transition to the powerful conference as "strange but exciting. I think our players are looking forward to it, and the coaches are, too. It's a great challenge, great coaches' league."
He mentioned the strength of home courts in the Big Ten, and how Maryland has to become a better road team but chuckled at the notion there's a big difference in style of play or toughness in the new league.
"Instead of playing Virginia, you're playing Wisconsin. They have similar styles. Instead of playing Clemson, you're playing Purdue. They're both physical, tough teams," he said.
The gauntlet has been thrown down to Maryland fans, too. The Big Ten has led the nation in attendance for 38 straight years.
Turgeon also talked about some other changes that are proving positive, too – the additions of Cliff Warren as an assistant coach and Nima Omidvar as Director of Basketball Operations.
"Cliff right away is a guy that has been in my seat for nine years (as head coach at Jacksonville)," he said. "That's huge. He knows what I go through and he's been terrific. He's a terrific coach, a terrific recruiter and even a better person.
"Nima is a guy that just loves Maryland, went to school here. Has unbelievable energy and excitement for Maryland. He knows a heck of a lot more about this place than I do. He's a tireless worker. The energy level and work coming out of our office right now has been tremendous."
Meanwhile, the additions of Pack and Carter, even though he won't play this season, have changed up the mix for the better. "I think what you want to do is you want to create competition in practice," said Turgeon. "We didn't feel like we had that last year. We didn't have the depth, especially early when Seth went down."
Carter, playing on the second team every day in practice is going to make Maryland better this year. "We feel like we have 12 really good players on scholarship and that will make practice competitive and that will make us better every day," said Turgeon. "Robert is going to give us that. He's a talented kid that can score inside and out, and an excellent rebounder. Just an older kid, too, going into his senior year as a redshirt, just his experience is going to help us."
Looking ahead to 2015, this offseason showed how fast things can change dramatically. Turgeon talked about the impact in recruiting.
"As of today, and you know recruiting changes daily, we're looking for really about three players – a point guard, a wing and some type of post, either a stretch-four or some type of post player," he said. "Over the next two years we're going to have five scholarships and we might not use all of them. We'll see. Things change."
Turgeon Loads the Bus Back Up
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