Mark Turgeon was taking the long road.
It wasn't something that many Maryland fans were willing to admit to themselves, but it was true. Sure, Turgeon looked like taking the Terrapins to the top, eventually, but it was only a matter of months ago that it looked like it wouldn't be coming anytime soon. And how could you blame him? He had inherited a threadbare roster ill-disposed to his style of play, going seven-deep in his first season with little in the way of proven ACC-level talent. His best piece, Terrell Stoglin, was a deeply-flawed (if still immensely skilled) chucker of a two-guard who often stifled his teammates. And then Stoglin departed with two other bench contributors in the offseason, leaving Maryland with an unimposing roster with a lot of inexperience and just as many question marks.
Throw in a lack of success in recent years, a drought on the trail, and Turgeon's less-than-elite recruiting abilities (an observation, not an indictment), and it was clear he also lacked the option of quickly loading up with a host of ready-right-now five-star prospects - the type of thing that Sean Miller had pulled off at Arizona, or John Calipari at Kentucky, or to a lesser degree Mark Gottfried at N.C. State. No, Turgeon had the recipe for a long hard slog of a rebuild, done the old-fashioned way: by getting a bunch of long-term, foundational recruits, coaching them up, and adding key pieces on top of them down the line.
This is not inherently a negative, mind. Despite his exposure to Calipari and Larry Brown as mentors, Turgeon's true models are more along the Dixon and Izzo lines. He's a coaches' coach, a renowned teacher and above-average with the Xs and Os. Given enough time, ascendancy build upon those tools is usually stable and fruitful, often more so than the alternative route. Sometimes that success comes quickly. Sometimes, as Tom Izzo would tell you, it takes more time. But if the coach is right, it inevitably comes.
In short, he was a long road coach, and Maryland's roster made sure he took it. That meant that his first few seasons seemed like tough propositions, but that fans were fine with it because the future looked much, much brighter.
Except one unexpected thing happened in the meantime: Turgeon showed himself to be unusually creative.
Not all coaches are good when it comes to filling holes through non-traditional means. Turgeon clearly is. First came the addition of Alex Len at center, a Ukrainian whom most had never head of. That was as much Gary Williams and Rob Ehsan's doing as it was Turgeon's, but in retrospect it was a sign of Turgeon's comfort level with adding talent from a variety of sources - something he leveraged in the offseason to transform Maryland's roster. There was his pursuit of Evan Smotrycz, the sweet-shooting power forward from Michigan who'll sit out this year. That was simple enough. Then he nabbed Logan Aronhalt, a graduate transfer from Albany who'll add shooting ability and some much-needed experience to balance out Maryland's roster. That took a bit more ingenuity. And then of course came Dez Wells, the centerpiece of Turgeon's wheeling and dealing, whom he not only snatched from the likes of Kentucky and Oregon but then, with the help of Kevin Anderson, the good legal staff of Hamilton County, and even a little bit from Xavier, got eligible immediately.
Like I said, many coaches aren't so adept at making crafty pick-ups. Turgeon proved to be, and he'll reap the rewards: instead of relying on inexperience throughout the rotation, he'll have a potential breakout star in his starting lineup and an experienced spot-up shooter in his top eight. That, along with expected improvement from the likes of Len and Nick Faust, morphs a roster from the outside of the bubble to comfortably in the tournament - and maybe even better. And so the results that were expected to come within several years very well could come immediately instead.
The question of whether Maryland is likely to make the NCAA tournament - their chief objective before Wells transferred in and was ruled eligible - is rendered insignificant. When you have Jeff Goodman proclaiming Maryland top-25-good and bracket sites considering them tourney locks, the season is no longer just about sneaking into the postseason. The new objective is much loftier, more along the lines of making a run in the tournament and in the ACC, maybe even posing a threat to the top three of Tobacco Road favorites Duke, UNC, and N.C. State.
Now, there are still question marks and uncertainties in the lineup. Will Alex Len assert himself and justify his lottery pick hype? Can Nick Faust take the next step to semi-stardom? Can James Padgett become the second coming of Dino Gregory as a senior? Will Seth Allen or Pe`Shon Howard emerge as an ACC-starter point guard? But instead of determining whether Maryland will even make the tournament or not, the answers to these questions are more likely to determine whether they'll make noise in the tournament or not. And the difference is drastic.
The Terrapins will, after all, have arguably the most fearsome perimeter duo in the conference in the form of Faust and Wells - tell me how many other wings you'd trade them for - plus one of the most imposing post threats in Len. Maryland's starting five is surely top-half in the ACC, maybe top-4 depending on how Len and Padgett turn out. But unlike many of their competitors, the Terrapins also possess a glut of options to bring off the bench, from Jake Layman to Logan Aronhalt to Charles Mitchell, each bringing something different. Maryland runs a legit 10 deep with comfort, allowing Turgeon to stymie opponents with a variety of lineups: he can go small with four guards; or with a big lineup using Faust at the point; a shooting lineup with Allen, Aronhalt, and Faust in the backcourt; an athletic lineup that could bring in Jake Layman - the possibilities are darn-near endless, each combination of players offering something that another combination doesn't. It's a coach's dream.
Which isn't to say there aren't problems that need addressing. Power forward in particular is a weak spot on this team, choosing between the young and undersized Mitchell or the solid-but-uninspiring vet Padgett. And there's a more important question mark at point guard, always the most important position on the floor and especially so in a Mark Turgeon offense. Pe`Shon Howard is an experienced leader, but he struggled with injury last season and it remains to be seen what level he'll play at. Meanwhile, Seth Allen looked like a budding star in the exhibition, but any freshman running the show is a gamble.
Either one should be serviceable, but a merely serviceable point guard can limit a team that otherwise could be extremely dangerous. But if one of those two can exceed expectations and emerge as a top-flight point guard in the ACC - not necessarily elite, but at least very good - the ceiling for this particular iteration of the team is very, very high. They still need some things to turn out their way, with Len and Faust in particular, but they could certainly end up a top-6 seed (or even higher).
Compare that to what people were thinking right after Terrell Stoglin left, when the majority were feeling bubble or even worse. The future is now indeed.
But the way Turgeon brought that phrase to life wasn't the same way George Allen did it back in the day, or the way some other college basketball coaches (Frank Haith at Missouri, off the top of my head) have overseen instant program turnarounds. He didn't mortgage the long-term well-being for a few gap-stop solutions that could enjoy immediate success. He's added pieces like Wells, Aronhalt, and Smotrycz, but he's done so on top of those aforementioned long-term foundational recruits, and kept adding them well into the future (see Damonte Dodd and Roddy Peters). When Aronhalt graduates, when Wells and Alex Len move on to greener pastures, they won't leave a vacuum behind them: the likes of Allen, Peters, Layman, Dodd, and Cleare will all be ready to take up their place.
(Nothing supports that point quite as well as the fact that Maryland's best days are clearly ahead of them. As exciting and impressive as this season may look, it's next year when they'll be at their peak. So long as Wells and Faust stick around - and maybe even Len, too - Turgeon will be looking at an extremely deep, dangerous, and well-balanced roster a year from now, with the youngsters adding a year of experience and Smotrycz becoming eligible to step in the power forward spot vacated by Padgett. That roster is arguably one you wouldn't trade for any in the country.)
Turgeon's goal has always been to return Maryland to their rightful place among the national elite, and it looks like they'll get there in a few year's time. But no one expected that transition to be quick, and had Turgeon asked for patience he would've gotten it. At first, it looked like that was indeed the plan. Instead he took a detour, adding transfers and revolutionizing the roster, taking it in a matter of months from a battered rag-tag crew to a deep and experienced squad that challenges any in the ACC. And he did it while not sacrificing the long-term project he has in place.
This is not meant to oversell the job Turgeon has done; he'll ultimately be judged on his record, nothing else. But it wasn't long ago that no one had the right to expect short-term results. But now excitement in the program isn't just about its future in the long run, but also - and finally, for Maryland's success-starved fanbase - in the here and now, too.