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Maryland and coach Mark Turgeon go from chaos to contenders in moments

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- "New home screen with the best [point guard] in the world," the tweet proclaims, and after the emojis (a basketball and a turtle) and the hashtags (#18days, #staymelo) comes the photo, which lo and behold, is just that: an iPhone home screen. Beneath folders of apps, at its center, Maryland guard Melo Trimble flexes and screams.

The final text of the tweet -- @_STAYMELO -- is the really crucial bit. Its inclusion means Trimble himself might see it. Maybe he'll respond. At worst, his phone will buzz.

This happens a lot. Multiple times a day, every day, almost all of it unsolicited. Encouragement, criticism, predictions, requests, religious counseling. Gifs, Vines, mixtapes. NBA2K16 doppelgangers. Brazen assessments of physical appearance. Breathless recountings of real-world run-ins. Unrequited professions of love. And then there's this:

And that's just Twitter. There's also Instagram and Snapchat and, oh yeah, real life, where people are only slightly less audacious. Senior guard Varun Ram, a neurobiology and physiology double-major with a 3.99 GPA, has observed a classic sociological pattern at football games this fall.

"So at first people will be very nervous and anxious and shy," Ram said. "Then, when they see someone else say something to us, then everyone else jumps in. It's funny. People come up and say, 'Ohh! Top five! Top five!'"

What makes the scene in College Park all the more remarkable is what a departure it is from every fall in recent Maryland memory. In 2013-14 -- just two seasons ago! -- Maryland finished 17-15. In the summer of 2014 -- just 18 months ago! -- it lost five players to transfer. It hasn't been all that long -- a year, basically -- since coach Mark Turgeon entered a college basketball season unranked, off-the-radar, with the outside world convinced his days at Maryland were numbered.

On Friday, the Terps will open the 2015-16 season ranked No. 1 in the ESPN preseason power rankings, No. 3 by the Associated Press and No. 3 in the USA Today Coaches Poll. They are the Big Ten's obvious favorite. They're one of a handful of true national title contenders in a wide-open, opportunity-rich 2015-16 landscape. And they're the most talented, most anticipated, highest-ranked Terps team since the glory days of Juan Dixon in the early 2000s.

So, yes, people are excited. The atmosphere has changed. On campus, classmates notice, then pretend not to. Or they shout from a distance. Or they openly gawk. Or they work up the courage to ask for photos, and then post those photos online, tagging the newly anointed Big Ten preseason player of the year in the process.

And then, for the fifth or seventh or 10th time that day, the giddy electricity in the College Park air will discharge itself, literally, as a buzz on Trimble's phone.

"It is weird," Trimble said. "But I think I like it."


Eighteen months ago, Mark Turgeon was the primary receptor for Maryland basketball's collective energies, and he was having a considerably less pleasant experience. It was early May, and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany's realignment welcome tour was coming to the Verizon Center in downtown Washington D.C. Media would be there, too.

"That was great timing, right?" Turgeon said.

Spoiler: It was not great. A week earlier, guard Seth Allen had become the fourth Terp to transfer out of the program since the end of the 2013-14 season, Turgeon's third. Maryland finished 17-15. Turgeon was 59-43 overall, still hadn't taken the Terps to an NCAA tournament and had a mass exodus on his hands.

Naturally, Turgeon's thoughts on the conference change were quickly and resoundingly overshadowed by the far more pressing question: What on Earth was wrong with Maryland basketball?

Externally, hot seats were discussed. Contracts were examined. Dogs and cats lived together. The panic was pervasive enough for Turgeon's own son even to ask whether his dad would be fired.

Internally, however -- both within his program and within his mind -- Mark Turgeon was still Mark Turgeon, which is to say he was essentially incapable of freaking out.

"To see him go through that was difficult for me," said assistant coach Dustin Clark, who followed Turgeon from Texas A&M to Maryland in 2012. "But I also knew his temperament. He never gets too high, he never gets too low."

A couple of months later, Turgeon got his first look at his overhauled squad during summer workouts, and his sense of calm was vindicated. These guys were better than anyone thought. They were good -- good enough to make the NCAA tournament, at least.

That proved a conservative estimate. Trimble and bruising senior guard Dez Wells proved a near-impossible duo to keep off the free throw line, while Jake Layman caused matchup havoc as a stretch four. After a 12-1 nonconference start, Maryland would go 14-4 in the Big Ten -- knocking off Wisconsin along the way -- en route to a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament.

"If you would have asked me two years ago if this was possible, I would have said no way," Turgeon said. "It just kind of all came together."

After winning 28 games -- tied for second-most in school history -- a season ago, Trimble and versatile wing Jake Layman both passed on the NBA. In the spring, elite center prospect Diamond Stone signed on. This summer, former Duke guard Rasheed Sulaimon chose Maryland as his graduate-transfer destination. Robert Carter, one of the ACC's best untapped talents in his two years at Georgia Tech, became eligible. Reliable role players (guard Jared Nickens, forwards Damonte Dodd and Michal Cekovsky) litter the rotation. The Terps also expected to get contributions from Dion Wiley, but the sophomore guard suffered a torn meniscus last week and the timetable for his return is unclear. Still, plenty of rosters have talent; Maryland's talent, even without Wiley for a bit, feels wholly complementary. Everything fits.

Not that there aren't questions, too. A year ago, the Terps finished 12-1 in games decided by six or fewer points, and while they wore that statistic as a point of pride, sheer math indicates it's hard to replicate over the long run. Stone, despite his lottery-pick talent, is a work in progress on the defensive end of the floor. Sulaimon, before he became the first player Mike Krzyzewski ever dismissed at Duke, openly admitted he wasn't always the best teammate.

And then there's the big one: How will this group, which this time last year was considered, in Trimble's words, a "cupcake team," handle its newfound ascent? How do you embrace the outside world's expectations of you without being consumed by what other people think? How do you channel a starved, rabid fan base's constant emotional feedback in a positive way?

Or: How do you stay humble when you're stuntin' on a Jumbotron?


Colorado coach Tad Boyle remembers his first impression of Turgeon. It was 1983. Boyle was a junior at Kansas under coach Larry Brown. A year later, when Boyle was a captain, a certain freshman named Danny Manning would walk into his first practice in Lawrence. First, though, a 5-foot-10 Turgeon was the notable addition.

"He came in as a baby-faced, brace-toothed freshman," Boyle said. "I wouldn't say we hit it off right away. It's not like we hung out a lot in college together."

In 1989, North Carolina coach Roy Williams was hired to replace Brown at Kansas. Turgeon, whom Brown hired immediately after his playing career was over, was the only member of Brown's staff still in Lawrence. Williams had chosen most of his staff already.

"It was the third or fourth day I was out there," Williams said. "Mark asked if he could tell me something. He said, 'What you said in your press conference, your love that you have for the University of North Carolina -- that's the way I feel about Kansas.' And it was so sincere, and so straightforward, so full of emotion and passion. That day I made the decision that I was going to hire him.

"When you hire an assistant, you're trusting your career in their hands. That's what I did with Mark. And it's one of the great decisions I've ever made."

In 1992, Turgeon would follow one of Williams' assistants, Jerry Green, to Oregon. Boyle had long since settled in Colorado, making a comfortable living as an investment advisor, coaching high school basketball on the side. Then, in 1994, Turgeon called. Oregon had a $16,000 entry-level position available. Boyle took the plunge.

Thus began a decades-long ride -- from Oregon to Turgeon's first head coaching job at Jacksonville State to, eventually, Wichita State. They coached, recruited and golfed, usually in that order. The zip codes changed. The pressures grew. The offensive sets evolved. But Turgeon, as a person, remained fixed.

"He's the same feisty, battling guy he was when he was playing at Kansas," Williams said. "He just is Mark Turgeon, period, end of story. And that's what he'll always be."

"This business can change people really quickly," Boyle said. "How you treat people, what your values are, what you stand for. And on that stuff Mark hasn't changed."

That stuff, according to the people who have known him for decades, is, like Turgeon, almost remarkably straightforward. An emphasis on family. An abiding self-confidence. A relative lack of hobbies. He isn't the guy standing in line at the kolache truck; he's the guy at the same diner every morning for 30 years.

"You know, I am pretty boring," he said. "I just do my job, be a dad, and be a husband. The court is where I'm most comfortable. This is where I'm happiest. The job."

Which makes sense. Where Turgeon has been admirably averse to change personally, he is unusually open to it professionally. In his final years at Wichita State, and then at Texas A&M, the Shockers and Aggies specialized in a downtempo, turnover-averse brand of offense. In 2011-12, his first year at Maryland, the Terrapins averaged nearly 5.3 more possessions per game (adjusted for opposition) than the Aggies of 2010-11. In 2013-14, the Terps broke 69 possessions per game. Last season, they averaged 64.2 -- after installing an entirely new offensive system.

If that feels like the perfect combination for this Maryland team, well, maybe it is.

On the court, the new faces and new roles -- the additions of Sulaimon, Carter and Stone; Layman's move from stretch-four to conventional small forward; the loss of Wells -- will require adaptive, open-minded tactics.

Off the court, maybe more than anything, this team may need a daily example of how to ignore the noise of the world around you so thoroughly your closest friends insist you haven't changed in decades -- and mean it as a compliment -- from the kind of coach who could genuinely approach last fall, and this fall, the exact same way.

"One of his quotes -- it's my favorite quote that he's ever said -- is that it's never as good as it seems, and it's never as bad as it seems," guard Varun Ram said. "That's what you want in a coach, right? Poise."


John Brown III is already prepared for the wave. Brown, besides being a devoted and involved Maryland fan, is also the owner of R.J. Bentley's Filling Station, a College Park staple since 1978, and knows as well as anyone what the "aura" of College Park is like when the Terps are rolling. A piece of the 2002 Final Four court perches on the bar's entry like a coat of arms; photos of those games, and Brown's friends screaming through them, adorn the walls.

It's midweek, in the afternoon, in November. It's quiet for now. But homecoming is coming up, and the first basketball exhibition game, and then it's the long-awaited

opener against Georgetown. Things will get crazy. Crazier.

"Basketball here, it's a great source of pride," Brown said. "It always matters. The core is solid. There's a fringe group of people that only come out when everything is nice and sweet. But the core is always solid."

Under former, beloved coach Gary Williams, Maryland went to the NCAA tournament every year from 1994 to 2004. It became easy to forget how hard it was for Williams to establish that cycle, and how low the Terps had fallen after Len Bias' tragic death in 1986, before Williams' restoration.

"After the 2002 national championship we thought, well, we'll be around for a while," Brown said. "You take it for granted sometimes. And you can't."

The 2015-16 season isn't just Maryland's best Associated Press poll ranking since that national championship 14 years ago. It's also, believe it or not, the first time in 10 years the Terps have begun a season ranked in the top 25 at all.

Brown's core has been waiting for this, and now it's almost here.

"Basketball around here lifts a lot of people," he said. "The crowd will be coming in."


Turgeon can't pretend that doesn't exist. It wouldn't work if he tried. The electricity was building all the way back in the summer: Turgeon would be out for a walk, or around campus, or wherever, and people would come up and offer him a hearty and heartfelt congratulations ... for his team's informal preseason ranking.

"And you haven't won a game," Turgeon said. "That's hard."

And yet it's very real. It also has its benefits. For one, Turgeon loves that this preseason has given a patient but hungry fan base some measure of preemptive catharsis. There is also the matter of his team's confidence, of instilling the belief that it is, in fact, good enough to win a national title. When everyone else is saying so, the case is easier to make. There's also sheer validation. Nobody's immune.

"That's why you come to a place like Maryland," Turgeon said. "You want to be looked at that way."

The rankings have been followed by preseason awards; the exposure has followed in turn. Trimble made the cover of Sports Illustrated, one of the magazine's preseason All-Americans. More than a few people tweeted him about it. He went to Big Ten media day, where he notched a couple more preseason awards, and spent a day surrounded by recorders and cameras being asked, in one form or another, why and how his team was so good. People tweeted him about that, too, the buzzes coming in one after the other, a satisfying dopamine drip.

"I'm glad this happened," Trimble said. "Because I never saw this or thought I would see people noticing me from a distance and coming up to me and saying 'Can I take a picture with you' and stuff like that. I think I'm pretty blessed to have that happen to me. And I like it. I enjoy it."

And why not? It's fun. It's supposed to be fun.

Five days later came Maryland media day, and it was more of the same. But then, at practice, Turgeon's finely honed internal instruments began to detect some unusual readings.

"It's tough," Trimble said. "I get a lot of notifications on social media, a lot of people texting me. The toughest thing is staying focused and humble. A lot of those things could blow my head up.

"I would say that when I came back from Big Ten media day, I was kind of built up about [being] the Big Ten preseason player of the year. I admit I felt a little bit complacent. But Coach Turgeon got on me real bad, and my teammates; they wanted me to play better than I was playing.

"My mom, she talked to me, too. I guess I wasn't returning her calls. She got mad at me. She told me she's the one who pays the phone bills and I can't do that. Everyone wants to put me back into reality. I got my head straight, and now I'm back to how I used to be."

Trimble's coach knows there's a balance in here somewhere. He wants to let "just the right amount" of the outside world in: enough to galvanize, not enough to inflate. Fun, but not too much fun. Confident, but driven.

"Respect it," Trimble says, "but not buy into it."

If any coach is wired to find that delicate line, it appears to be Mark Turgeon.

Meanwhile, it's just November, and the air in College Park is only getting thicker.