COLLEGE PARK — When the elephant stepped into the middle of the room, Maryland men's basketball coach Mark Turgeon might as well have fed it peanuts and posed for pictures with it.
Entering his third season in College Park — and the Terps' final season in the Atlantic Coast Conference — he didn't sidestep any questions on Tuesday about his team's prospects for returning to the NCAA Tournament or the importance of doing that sooner rather than later.
He had his honeymoon season in 2011-12. The Terps came within a win or two of reaching the Big Dance with a very young team last year. There really is only one next logical step in the progression that would make this a truly successful season and Turgeon is not shying away from the expectations that he was brought here to both raise and realize.
The credibility of his program depends on it … especially with Maryland's move to the Big Ten Conference looming just over the horizon.
"I don't think it has anything to do with the Big Ten and everything to do with our program and what we're trying to do here," he said during the Terrapins basketball media day at Comcast Center. "It would have been nice to sneak in last year. It would have been nice. We didn't deserve it. We didn't win enough games …enough games we were supposed to win. So that is the next progression. That is what we plan to do."
It won't be a slam dunk, of course. The Terps lost their most imposing defensive player — center Alex Len — to the NBA and they still are a team that will depend a lot on a bunch of talented underclassmen, but that was last year's excuse. Turgeon made it clear that whatever growing up those players still have to do, they're going to have to do it on the fly.
"We're going to have to stay healthy," he said. "We're going to have to be really good and we're going to have to be somewhat lucky. The basketball gods are going to have to be on our side and we'll have to get a few bounces. It's a long season. I just think in recruiting and everything we're doing here, it's just the next natural step and it feels right. I can stand up here and say, I feel like we have a really good basketball team."
What he refused to do was hedge his bet and point out that the Terps are going to be better next year. They may have another good recruiting class on the way and they have a right to expect more growth from the four sophomores who are expected to play big roles this year, but that's a story for next October's media day.
"We're not thinking about next year," Turgeon said. "We're thinking about this year. Our guys have worked our tails off since the end of last year and we've gotten a lot better."
He also was reluctant to spend a lot of time checking the rear-view mirror, other than to point out a lot of areas where he feels the Terps will be much-improved this year. Maryland fans should like the fact that he's one of those coaches who never seems to be looking for an out.
"I feel really good about where we are," he added. "This is a huge year for us to improve on what we did last year, and we should. I think we're ready to take that next step, so we're excited about that. It's a big year for us. Today, I'm happy with where we are and what we've done."
Everyone seems to agree that the key to the whole thing will be the way the Terps play on defense without Len, who Turgeon unreservedly points out was the major reason Maryland led the ACC in shooting percentage defense last season. The offense features a lot of scoring potential if the young Terps can play more under control and cut way down on turnovers.
"I think we're going to be pretty explosive at times," Turgeon said. "I think there will be times we'll be able to rattle off eight or 10 quick ones. We'll be a different team. How much better, I don't know. We'll see. That's the plan — to be better and to win…to be better in the league. We haven't been very good in the league. To be better in the league will be really important to our chances of playing in the NCAA tournament."
Two years in and that already is going to be the measure of the Turgeon era, but you won't hear him complaining about it.
"We are on the right track," he said. "We've done a lot of pretty good things. We were sitting there the second day of the job and had six players. We've won 42 games. Haven't made the NCAA Tournament but if we just could have won one more down the stretch, we could have made the NCAA Tournament. We're maybe a little further ahead than I thought we would be."
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Friday mornings at 9on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.