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Looking ahead: Maryland Terrapins

5/9/2015

It’s never too early to start to look ahead to next season. Over the coming weeks, we will examine what comes next for each team in the Power 5 conferences and also those outside the Power 5 who could make noise on the national stage. Today: Maryland Terrapins.

On May 6, 2014, Maryland coach Mark Turgeon had a club level seat in a mostly empty Verizon Center for a party thrown in his program's honor. The afternoon's host, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, had just hopped off the Acela Express from New York. Maryland was officially joining Delany's league on July 1, 2014; the tradition-rich, well-situated outfit Turgeon now commanded was the most relevant piece of the Big Ten's ambitious eastward expansion.

The day before, Delany had prefaced the welcome with a sizable gift: In 2017, the Big Ten tournament would be held in the Verizon Center -- the first time it has ever left Chicago or Indianapolis -- just a few miles from its newest member's campus.

It should have been exciting. Turgeon just looked exhausted.

The problem? A gaggle of local reporters were invited to the party, too, but they weren't much interested in the formalities of conference realignment. Just a week before Delany's ceremonial landing, guard Seth Allen had announced his decision to leave the program -- the fourth player to do so already that offseason. A month earlier, Roddy Peters, Shaquille Cleare, and Nick Faust had simultaneously announced their transfers. Forward Charles Mitchell, who eventually became the fifth player to leave College Park, Maryland, already had one foot out the door. Turgeon was still playing catch-up by the time his starting point guard shocked him.

The 2013-14 season was Turgeon's third at the school; it ended with a 17-15 record and a restless fan base. Now reporters had a chance to ask the man in charge -- and his boss, athletic director Kevin Anderson -- how it all went so wrong. Fun!

“It’s no fun, because you get blindsided,” Turgeon said at the time. "Have I learned some things? Maybe. If I change, are things going to change with kids today? I don’t know. We’ll see. But you always look in the mirror. I look in the mirror every day. Ultimately I always blame myself for everything that happens under my watch.”

Exactly one year and three days later, things have changed. All of those ominous hot seat symptoms -- the votes of confidence, the mea culpas, the disappointed finger-wagging at "the kids today" -- are nowhere to be found. In 2014-15, Maryland embarked on its best season since Gary Williams and Juan Dixon won a national title in 2001-02, complete with a 28-7 record, a second-place Big Ten finish behind powerhouse Wisconsin, the arrival of one of the game's best guards and a rejuvenated crowd not seen since the glory days of Cole Field House.

It was among the more remarkable six-month turnarounds in recent college hoops history. And it was only the beginning.

What the immediate future holds:

As crazy as 2014-15 was -- who loses five transfers and gets 11 wins better? -- this next bit is even crazier: In 2015-16, Maryland is a shortlist national title contender, if not the outright favorite.

That status was essentially sealed in April, when sixth-ranked 2015 prospect Diamond Stone -- a 6-foot-10 center with a big body, a polished post game and a glorioius moniker that appeared to his parents in bright blue neon lights (with a purple outline) every time they closed their eyes -- committed to the Terps. Stone will join point guard Melo Trimble, returning after a brilliant rookie season that earned him a slew of individual awards; and rising senior Jake Layman, a matchup nightmare as a true outside-in stretch 4.

That trio alone would be enough to put Maryland atop the preseason Big Ten projections, but there's more to it than that. Jared Nickens was overshadowed by Trimble for much of last season, but the 6-foot-7 wing who averaged 39 percent from 3 quietly submitted an immensely promising freshman season. Damonte Dodd (6-foot-11) and Michal Cekovsky (7-foot-1) will ensure the Terps are rarely, if ever, undersized. Meanwhile, Maryland is on former Duke guard Rasheed Sulaimon's transfer short list, which would immediately and resoundingly give the Terps the best starting five in college basketball.

But they're in that discussion already. In the end, the most flabbergasting thing about Turgeon's turnaround isn't its speed, but its totality. In 2015-16, Maryland will have one of the most talented and well-rounded rosters in college basketball. After a five-player exodus that at worst threatened his job and at best robbed him of his ability to enjoy it, Turgeon has built a team that is both brilliant and logical.

The pieces all fit. And they are very good pieces. How fun is that?