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In fourth season, Mark Turgeon hasn't changed, but Terps' fortunes finally have

In his fourth season at Maryland, coach Mark Turgeon finally has the Terps back in the spotlight.

Anniversaries are useful milestones for measuring progress or, in some cases, decline. In that way, college basketball mimics life, with coaches judged, year after year, by how their programs have grown — or not.

Come Tuesday night, it will be exactly a year since Maryland lost at home to then-No. 4 Syracuse, 57-55. With eight seconds remaining, guard Nick Faust (City) had a go-ahead shot blocked. As time expired, guard Seth Allen's would-be game-winning 3-pointer hit off the backboard, then clanged off the rim.

In a season that began with a one-point loss to eventual national champion Connecticut and ended with a two-point loss to Florida State in the Terps' final Atlantic Coast Conference tournament appearance, the defeat last February was fitting: It was one of eight in 11 games decided by four points or fewer.

Maryland finished 17-15 overall, matching its record from 2011-12, Turgeon's first season after taking over for Hall of Famer Gary Williams, and equaling the program's fewest wins since 1995-96. The Terps were not invited to the postseason for the second time in three years. In the spring, five players, including Faust and Allen, announced they would transfer.

The turnaround has been dramatic.

When No. 16 Maryland (22-5, 10-4 Big Ten Conference) takes the court at Xfinity Center against No. 5 Wisconsin, the Terps will have moved past their offseason soap opera to a place unfamiliar under Turgeon: national prominence.

Ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 for the 12th straight week, Maryland is certain to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years. Even without the tumult of last spring, which led many to question how long Turgeon might survive at the school, the rapid climb back to among college basketball's elite still would have been impressive.

"I don't know if I appreciate it, because I'm so close it," Turgeon explained Wednesday. He said he was "just trying to figure out how to beat Nebraska," which the Terps did the next day, 69-65, their eighth win in as many games decided by six points or fewer this season.

Turgeon, who turned 50 this month, couldn't seem happier with how his team has grown since coming together last summer with a radically altered roster and a newfound attitude about playing together at both ends of the court.

Not that he's ready to declare the season a success or take any verbal swings at those who questioned him last spring.

"There's a lot of basketball left, but to this point, it's very satisfying because I have a good group that listens, that's dialed in, trying to get better. And they play together, they like each other, so that's fun," Turgeon said recently. "As the year's gone on, we've grown more confident and believe in what we're doing."

During last week's Big Ten teleconference, a reporter offered Turgeon a chance to fire back at the media who had picked the Terps to finish 10th in the preseason league poll. In a rare moment of reflection on what happened last spring, something he and his current players have steadfastly refused to discuss in recent months, Turgeon was candid.

"We could have been picked worse with all the things that happened in the offseason, relying on a freshman point guard," he said. "I wasn't shocked."

Starting over

Turgeon's first three years at Maryland — two 17-15 seasons sandwiched around a 25-13 team that reached the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament with future NBA lottery draft pick Alex Len — frustrated a fan base anxious to see the Terps return to the NCAA tournament, and a coach who had grown accustomed to winning at Wichita State and Texas A&M.

"Everywhere I've been, it's been hard," Turgeon said. "You've got to prove yourself every year; you never stop proving yourself. What I've learned over the years as I've gotten more gray is: Don't get too high or too low. Whenever things were going on in tough situations, I thought: 'Everything's going to be all right. We're going to make it better. It's going to work if we just stay the course and do what we're supposed to do.' "

When Allen, the team's second-leading scorer a year ago, became the last player to leave in the spring, Turgeon said he would have to see what, if anything, he had done to cause such an exodus.

Yet Turgeon quickly realized when the team returned for summer workouts that the players were more focused from the start. Nearly nine months later, the feeling is still there.

"I knew in June that we had a chance to be pretty good," he said. "And I think we can get better because our seniors who were hurt are healthy now and our young guys are starting to figure it out and there's still a lot of upside to this team this season."

His offense has changed, but Turgeon is coaching pretty much the same way he had during his previous 15 seasons in Division I.

"Have I changed? I don't think so," Turgeon said after practice Wednesday. "I think I'm still that real competitive guy that wants to win. I prepare the same way. Have we changed some things that we're doing, X-and-O-wise? Yes. I always had a belief in myself since I was a little guy."

Ann Turgeon, who met her future husband in 1990, when he was a young assistant coach under Roy Williams at Kansas and she was a student manager for the team, said the Maryland coach is just an older version of the point guard and team captain who helped the Jayhawks reach the 1986 Final Four.

"That's the one thing that he's always had going for him, is his confidence," Ann Turgeon said Friday. "He knows what he's doing, he's confident in it and he's not going to change his ways. To his credit, he's never wavered from that. He's always had the confidence and the foresight to say: 'Jump on board.' "

Trimble's team

From nearly the start of the season, opposing coaches could tell that Maryland had changed. Before and after No. 2 Virginia handed the Terps their only home loss of the season in December, Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett talked about how different their chemistry appeared to be.

Ann Turgeon had seen it firsthand daily.

"Dez [Wells] is just as happy with Melo [Trimble] scoring 26 points [against Nebraska]. On any given night, they're just as excited for Damonte Dodd or Jared [Nickens] or Jake [Layman] or Dez or Richaud [Pack]. It doesn't matter. You have to have it to be successful. You can't just have a Melo Trimble."

But if there is one player who has helped transform the Terps this season, it is their freshman point guard.

After a bit of a shaky start, Trimble showed he could score with a 31-point game against Arizona State in late November. He proved he could lead after Wells, a starting senior guard, fractured his right wrist against Iowa State, now ranked No. 14, the next night.

After defeating the Cyclones, the Terps went on to beat Oklahoma State, now No. 22, on the road in December and, with Wells and senior forward Evan Smotrycz (broken foot and sprained ankle) back in the rotation, win five of their first six games in the Big Ten.

Back and leg pain derailed him last month, and he missed 13 straight shots over a two-game stretch. But after scoring 18 points in a Feb. 11 win against Indiana, helping the Terps avenge a 19-point loss in Bloomington last month, Trimble had 20, including Maryland's last six, in a 76-73 victory at Penn State and then 26, including 11 straight late in the game, in Thursday's nail-biter.

"He deserves an unbelievable amount of the credit for what we're doing, but our seniors do, too, for accepting the young kids," Turgeon said.

'New blood'

The job Turgeon has done in the school's first Big Ten season has not been ignored by his peers, or his players. It has made him, along with Purdue's Matt Painter and Wisconsin's Bo Ryan, one of the front-runners for league Coach of the Year honors.

"To have 20 wins with the offseason they had, and to deal with that the way that he did, and to come into this season and get those guys better the way that he has, Mark's one of the best coaches in the country," Indiana coach Tom Crean said this month. "I have unreal respect for him, and it's not easy to do that, to withstand dealing with adversity like that. He's done it, and they're better for it."

Said junior forward Jake Layman, whose move to power forward this season also has played into Maryland's success: "He's done a great job with this team and the weapons that we have, especially all of our shooters. He's found a way to get everybody shots. Everyone's playing with confidence right now. That's all on Coach and having confidence in us."

Tim Layman, Jake's father, credits the addition of assistant coach Cliff Warren and graduate assistant John Auslander for helping improve player development, something many believed was lacking during Turgeon's first three seasons.

Warren, a former standout player at Mount St. Mary's who had coached the previous nine years at Jacksonville, was Paul Hewitt's top assistant at Georgia Tech when the Yellow Jackets reached the NCAA final in 2004.

Auslander, a former walk-on at Maryland who graduated last spring, is a protege of David Atkins, who worked on Terps women's coach Brenda Frese's staff before joining the Washington Wizards in the summer.

Warren joined a staff that included longtime Turgeon assistant Dustin Clark as well as Baltimorean Bino Ranson, the lone holdover from the end of Williams' 22-year reign.

Auslander and former Terps guard Logan Aronhalt, who played one season for Turgeon at Maryland, joined the support staff along with new basketball operations director Nima Omidvar, a Maryland graduate.

"One thing that's changed [for Turgeon] is the people he surrounded himself with," Tim Layman said. "It was a good time to get some new blood in there. I don't think Mark looks to reinvent the wheel; that's not his personality. But I do think he had some square pegs in a round hole."

'We should win'

There also is no sign that this season is a one-shot deal. Although the Terps are set to lose five seniors on scholarship, including Wells, they are positioned to be as good, if not better, in 2015-16. Depending on how the next few months play out, the team could be the Big Ten's preseason favorite.

Along with 6-foot-9 forward transfer Robert Carter Jr., a former five-star recruit who averaged more than 11 points and eight rebounds a game as a sophomore at Georgia Tech, the Terps will add junior-college guard Jaylen Brantley. They already have received an oral commitment from junior guard Anthony Cowan Jr., a top local recruit.

Maryland also is still in the hunt for McDonald's All-American Diamond Stone, a 6-10 center from Milwaukee considered among the top 10 recruits in the country. Stone is expected to choose from among Maryland, Wisconsin and Connecticut this spring.

Turgeon, whose eight-year contract pays him nearly $2 million annually and runs through the 2018-19 season, said this season is what the school deserves.

"It's Maryland," he said. "We should have good players, and we should win. Nothing's changed with that. That's why you take the job, and we're getting there. And who knows, maybe this team will help us arrive. Maybe our best days [this season] are still ahead of us."

In that case, Tuesday could be some anniversary party.

don.markus@baltsun.com

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