Expectations and excuses: Looking towards a pivotal year for Maryland basketball

Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

The 2013-2014 season was a disaster for the program and coach. Next year they'll have to right the ship or sink with it.

The Maryland Terrapins men's basketball team will not be playing a postseason basketball game, making this the third time in four years that this statement will be true. Before that stretch, the last time they didn't play a postseason game? 1993. The Terps won 17 games and lost 15 games, tied for their worst record since that 1992-1993 season. The other season with that bad of a record over that period of time? Two years ago.

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The 2013-2014 Maryland Terrapins men's basketball team finished the season ranked 43rd in KenPom, ahead of 31 NCAA tournament teams, including 10 with at-large bids. They were 328th (out of 351) in "Luck", a statistic defined on the site as,

"A measure of the deviation between a team’s actual winning percentage and what one would expect from its game-by-game efficiencies. It’s a Dean Oliver invention. Essentially, a team involved in a lot of close games should not win (or lose) all of them. Those that do will be viewed as lucky (or unlucky)."

Maryland's Pythagorean Winning Percentage, or expected winning percentage against an average NCAA D-1 team, was .8044 (43rd in the country). Over a 32 game season they would have been expected to win ~27 games versus an average D-1 schedule. In actuality, they played the 14th hardest schedule. Had Maryland scored just one more basket and prevented their opponent from scoring just one more basket each game this season, they would have won six more games (and gone to overtime versus Pittsburgh), including wins over five teams that made the NCAA tournament. All of these numbers are meant to say that Maryland was a decent team that got about as unlucky as a team can get, especially in close games, and against a very difficult schedule.

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Both of the above trains of thought are completely valid when viewing the season Terrapin players and fans just endured. On one hand, Maryland had one of their worst basketball seasons in two decades. On the other, they were the victim of an inordinate amount of the bad bounces that come with the game of basketball.

Regardless of to which you subscribe, one thing is undeniable: it cannot happen again.

I've been on record countless times as a believer, and at time apologist for Coach Mark Turgeon. I've defended him at every turn.

"Just wait until he has his guys in the program."

"They would've won if Seth Allen had been healthy."

"It's okay to lose a game like that now, as long as they don't lose like that in February."

Over and over I've made excuses, some more valid than others. I still believe that Turgeon is a good basketball coach and can succeed at Maryland. What I cannot do at this point is make excuses for this past season. There was enough talent on this team to be in the tournament. While it's true that they got very unlucky in close games, good teams make their own luck. Simply, the current state of Terrapin men's basketball is unacceptable.

Let's get this of the way: Turgeon will not and should not be fired this offseason. A coach at a program like Maryland, with an above .500 record over three seasons and a top 10 recruiting class signed, is not getting fired at almost any program in the country. It's not accepting mediocrity, it's being patient and reasonable.

Now, after all the equivocating, we arrive at the point: If Maryland does not show marked improvement, including but not limited to, a spot in the NCAA tournament next season, something has to change.

The tournament is a moving target. A resume that gets a team in one year will not necessarily get them in the next. For example, Maryland was widely considered a bubble team last season, needing just a win or two more to be in the tournament, but according to KenPom were actually slightly worse than they were this season, when they were left out of the NIT.

It can be flawed thinking to set the fluctuating bar of the NCAA tournament as the arbiter of success or failure (Did Iowa really have a much more successful season than SMU just because the former got in and the latter didn't?), but for Maryland and Turgeon it might be that simple.

Not only do they have to make the tournament, they need to display that the program is on the right track. There must be more cohesion on offense and less confusion on defense. There must be fewer turnovers and mental mistakes. There cannot be highly touted freshman barely, if at all, contributing and progressing over the course of the season.

With likely every major contributor back and the addition of a highly touted recruiting class, there's no reason they can't take the next step. As bad as its been at times, they aren't all that far away from contending. They aren't Virginia Tech or Northwestern.

There are, to my way of thinking, a few possible timelines moving forward. Maryland could use the frustration and anger of how this past season unfolded, coupled with the new scenery of the Big Ten, to improve. If they can break from the current stagnation of mediocrity they'll have the talent in place to not only return to the tournament, but join the ranks of the B1G elite. They'll win big games, lose heartbreakers and create rivalries. We'll look back to the last three years as the darkness before the dawn; the necessary, if uncomfortable, rebuild.

The other timeline is much darker. Freshmen don't live up to expectations. Promising players like Seth Allen and Jake Layman sputter in their development. Seniors expected to be leaders fail in their roles. More wringing of hands and shaking of fist. More frustration and anger. Ultimately, whether next season or the one after, Turgeon would be let go. Maryland will yet again go through the uncertainly that comes with a coaching change. Undoubtedly there would be transfers and decommitments. The program, already set back after the retirement of Gary Williams would be set back even further. There's no guarantee Maryland would make a better hire than Turgeon, who we must remember was coming off back-to-back Big 12 Coach of the Year awards and four straight NCAA tournament appearances at Texas A&M, a school that hadn't made The Dance between 1987 and 2006. Any coach they'd hire to replace him would have a similar resume. Even if they did make a great hire, he'd likely have to rebuild the program yet again, in his own image. We could be looking at six or seven years, if not more, of mediocrity...or worse.

This is why the 2014-2015 basketball season will be so vital. It may define the next era of Terrapin hoops. Success begets more success, failure begets more failure. This can get better, and for the sake of the coaches, the players, and the fans, it must get better.

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