Long before the season started, the Maryland men's basketball team spent two grueling days testing its stamina and willpower by training with a former Navy SEAL under the hot September sun.
The Terps sweated through push-ups and leg lifts. They labored to tread water in the campus pool wearing heavy, gray sweatshirts. Each player was asked to pick up a teammate and carry him across a field on their shoulders.
It was a time when bonds were formed and bodies were tested.
Four months later — after a loss to Virginia on Feb. 10 that Coach Mark Turgeon said Monday represented "rock bottom" — Turgeon asked the players to recall those exercises and their messages of commitment and leadership. He toughened conditioning drills, asked players to shoot more foul shots and became even less tolerant of mental mistakes in practice. He declared that he was the captain of the team, taking the title away from upperclassmen James Padgett and Pe'Shon Howard.
It's too soon to say if Turgeon's motivational tactics will be a turning point for a team that responded by handing Duke, then ranked No. 2, its third loss in 25 games on Saturday. But if Maryland is able to turn this season into something memorable, the genesis might well be the coach's assertive response to an 11-point loss that he took particularly hard.
"When you played like we played (against Virginia) — never got a loose ball — something wasn't right," Turgeon said as Maryland (18-7, 6-6 Atlantic Coast Conference) prepared to travel to Boston College (11-14, 3-9) for a game Tuesday night. "I was mad about a lot of things. Sometimes you need to hit rock bottom, which I think we did … to pick yourself back up and move forward. We weren't acting right off the court either, academically."
Sometimes young teams stocked with former high-school stars — Maryland started three freshmen against the Blue Devils — don't understand how much sacrifice is required to be successful in college.
During the SEAL drills, some Terps players wore T-shirts with a slogan emphasizing that nobody succeeds on reputation alone. "Here Rep is Earned," the shirts said.
Turgeon said he took notes during the September workouts and read them back to players in the walkup to the Duke game. He also had them perform variations of some of the SEAL exercises.
"He's been a lot stricter, and I can understand that because losing is frustrating," freshman Shaquille Cleare said Monday. "That's why the practices have been so much more intense, because he felt like he was soft on us. We did a lot more conditioning stuff. He was just much harder on us."
Said Cleare: "He sees something in this team that I think some of the players don't really see — that we actually can change around this program and take it to the next level."
Center Alex Len, who led Maryland with 19 points and nine rebounds against the Blue Devils, likened the previous week to returning to training camp.
"Last week was probably like summer practices," the sophomore said. "It was really tough. He was really on us."
Between the Virginia and Duke games, Maryland players took 7,000 foul shots — 500 apiece.
Maryland beat Duke, 83-81, partly because the Terps were aggressive in the paint and got to the free-throw line 34 times — their high in an ACC game. They converted 25 (73.5 percent).
They are shooting just 63.2 from the line in 12 ACC games.
After practicing so many free throws, freshman guard Seth Allen said he was entirely comfortable when he stepped to the line against the Blue Devils with 2.8 seconds left in a contest that was tied at 81. He converted both.
Allen seemed to smile as he waited to shoot. He said part of that was confidence, and part was that teammate Nick Faust told him something before the shots.
Allen declined to reveal exactly what Faust said. "Inside joke," Allen said.
Twitter.com/sunjeffbarkerCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times