Maryland men’s basketball is supposed to be better than this
The question for Turgeon going forward: What is the difference between what Maryland is right now and what he wants the Terps to be in the future?
Because this, a blowout to a program clearly on an upward trajectory, can’t be the finished product. It was striking Monday night: Maryland had maxed out this roster — short and thin, with almost everyone playing out of position — and simply couldn’t compete with Alabama. Turgeon could say afterward how proud he was of this team because of the sacrifices the players made for one another, the resilience they showed in clawing back from a 1-5 start in Big Ten play and the discipline they needed to go an entire season without a positive test for the coronavirus — and each piece is legitimate and valid.
But there’s also the reality that in a decade in College Park, Turgeon’s teams have reached just one Sweet 16. Maybe last year’s talented squad, which shared the Big Ten regular season title, would have pushed through had the pandemic not wiped out the tournament. We’ll never know.
The concern, though, is that the standard has shifted. There was a time when Maryland fans found it frustrating that Gary Williams’s teams couldn’t push through to a regional final. Oh, for that frustration now.
Williams’s 22 years at his alma mater — a period that began with the program at its nadir, still reeling from the aftereffects of Len Bias’s death and the three-year Bob Wade disaster — were marked by a run of 11 straight NCAA appearances. Yes, they included the back-to-back Final Fours and the 2002 NCAA title. But there were also seven Sweet 16s, which matters, because surviving the tourney’s first weekend extends the fun for everyone.
The expectations were both stifling and thrilling, which is what you want in a college program — the feeling that if things break the right way, the ride will continue. Maybe, around the turn of this century, Maryland wasn’t in the elite group of programs with Kentucky and Kansas, Duke and North Carolina, UCLA and Indiana. But dang if it didn’t feel as though the Terps were on the very next level, breathing down the necks of those blue bloods, afraid of no one, competitive with everyone, Williams’s very visible chip on his shoulder embraced and embodied by the fan base as well.
That national championship not only brings the fondest memories, but it colors everything that has happened since. Programs that win it all are forever cursed, in a way, by the fact they won it all. Take North Carolina State, one of Maryland’s old ACC rivals. The Wolfpack still revels in the national title David Thompson delivered in 1974, then the second brought by the cardiac kids of Jim Valvano in 1983. If it was possible then, why isn’t it possible now? Meanwhile, the Wolfpack has reached just three Sweet 16s in the past 30 years. It’s a difficult spot for any coach, to embrace what has happened previously and simultaneously know how difficult it will be to return to that level — while somehow satisfying a fan base that only wants to feel as though what has already been achieved is a possibility again.
That’s Maryland right now. Williams’s national title was a culmination, a byproduct of building and building, of knocking on the door before finally kicking it in. The Terps, right now, don’t feel as though they’re on that same path. Their Sweet 16 appearance was five years ago, and it ended in a pounding from Kansas that didn’t feel terribly different from Monday night’s — a program at a different level doing what it should do to a program aspiring to get there.
This all matters because this is a critical juncture in Turgeon’s College Park tenure. A decade in, the program is his and his alone. He is signed only through 2022-23, meaning the choices are to extend his contract or know that other schools will recruit against him as a lame duck. He can rightfully be proud of the kids he coached into the second round, but he simultaneously has to consider this what it was — “Supposed to be a rebuilding year,” he said Monday night — and understand that the standard next year and beyond must be higher.
This isn’t to pick apart how he handled this team, which had an undeniably flawed roster. It is to say there’s no more room for building flawed rosters, not unless the standard has shifted and there’s annual satisfaction about having a sub-.500 record in Big Ten play and losing in the second round of the dance.
It’s human nature, given the style of the season-ending loss, to look around at the programs that remain in the tournament and do some comparing and contrasting. Nate Oats, the Alabama coach, is in just his second year in Tuscaloosa. When Turgeon was hired to replace the retiring Williams, Oats was a high school coach in Detroit. A decade later, Oats has the Crimson Tide on the rise. Do Alabama’s budget and its boosters’ generosity dwarf those at Maryland? Sure. But one school has a far deeper hoops history, so it’s hard not to ask, “Why not us?”
There’s also the reality that the bracket annually seems filled with players from D.C. and its immediate suburbs who aren’t wearing Maryland colors. Kris Jenkins drained the shot that won Villanova’s 2016 national title, a team on which Josh Hart was the leading scorer. They went to Gonzaga and Sidwell Friends, respectively. Luka Garza (Maret) was the consensus national player of the year — for Iowa. Hunter Dickinson (DeMatha) was the Big Ten freshman of the year — for Michigan.
Recruiting regrets are fraught and complicated. Each comes with its own story — the Terps took Bruno Fernando from Garza’s class and made him an NBA draft pick in two years. Maryland has done well in recruiting Baltimore, too, with two more Charm City players arriving in College Park this fall. Parsing this stuff is best done over hours, and beers. It’s all nuanced.
What’s not nuanced: a season that ends with a loss in which all the losing program can do is tip its hat and applaud a winning program that’s currently on another level. The program getting that sign of respect, delivering an overwhelming blow, should at least sometimes be Maryland. Not every year, but occasionally. For more than 15 years, that hasn’t been the case. If the standard has slipped, it’s time for it to be restored.