“A thousand-pound gorilla”: With Big Ten crown, Mark Turgeon finally got his banner

Maryland men's basketball head coach Mark Turgeon celebrates winning his first Big Ten title before cutting the net at Xfinity Center on March 8, 2020. (Joe Ryan/The Diamondback)

Maryland men’s basketball coach Mark Turgeon climbed the ladder, turned to the mass of Terps fans that flooded the Xfinity Center floor and delivered a pair of fist pumps.

His team had just beaten Michigan 83-70 to secure a share of the Big Ten regular-season title. Next, came the moment he — and those fans— had really been waiting for. It took nine years, but Turgeon was finally poised on a ladder, proudly hoisting the remnants of a net for all Maryland fans to see.

While perched on that ladder, Turgeon stood above the large contingent of Terps fans, displaying the net that signified the elusive conference championship a faction of supporters thought he may never earn in College Park.

“Does anybody see the thousand-pound gorilla that was on my back that left, not here anymore?” Turgeon told the crowd during the trophy presentation.

[Read more: Photo essay: Lifting the trophy, Maryland men’s basketball celebrates first Big Ten title]

When Turgeon arrived at College Park in 2011, he was replacing a Maryland legend in university alum Gary Williams, who had just retired after 22 seasons at the helm.

Williams led the program to three ACC regular-season championships, a conference tournament title and its lone national championship in 2002, when he waved the net at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

Turgeon took over with a roster in a state of flux. Williams’ departure coincided with the team’s best player, Jordan Williams, leaving early for the NBA draft. Then, just three years after taking over, Turgeon had to adjust to a new conference.

“You take over and you go through things, and we had to rebuild again,” Turgeon said. “And then, [we] change leagues.”

There seemed to be a level of patience from fans as the former Kansas point guard navigated through the early portion of his tenure. But as seasons wore on and the Terps repeatedly fell short of lofty expectations, the narrative began to shift.

An anti-Turgeon crowd emerged on social media before, during and after games. Searching the name “Turgeon” on Twitter often results in vehement disapproval in his coaching ability.

“In this generation, social media’s huge. You go search your name, and it’s things said from fans, or so-called fans,” guard Anthony Cowan said. “It happens. But to be able to overcome it, especially with coach, and be able to ride together, I think it’s huge for us.”

Even at the Xfinity Center, as Turgeon stood on the court named after his predecessor, he would hear mixed reactions to his name being announced during pre-game introductions.

It wasn’t for a lack of good moments — Maryland has had two second-place conference finishes under his watch, and there was a Sweet 16 appearance in 2016.

But it was the talented teams, such as the 2015-16 team that started the season at No. 3 in the poll, that incurred early exits in the Big Ten or NCAA tournaments — or both — that drew derision from fans.

With another highly ranked squad coming into the 2019-2020 season, checking in at No. 7 in the preseason polls, players could feel an uptick of pressure applied to their coach.

“Without a doubt,” guard Aaron Wiggins said. “A lot of people are on his back, a lot of people are on the team’s back about his coaching and stuff. But we all have his back; we all know how good of a coach he is.”

[Read more: Maryland men’s basketball clinches share of Big Ten title with 83-70 win over Michigan]

This banner season didn’t come without criticism directed at Turgeon.

There was the two-game losing streak in December that suddenly had Maryland fans backing down from their championship expectations. That was squashed Sunday afternoon.

And who could forget the narrative that Turgeon couldn’t win big games on the road? The ninth-year coach answered it with season-defining wins over Indiana, Illinois, Michigan State and Minnesota.

Then, for good measure, there was the streak of three losses in a four-game span that had some supporters — or, as Cowan called them, “so-called fans” — back on Turgeon’s case after a nine-game winning streak temporarily silenced them.

“Coach Turgeon takes a lot of criticism for us throughout the whole season. He handles it well,” forward Jalen Smith said. “But just knowing that we got to get him this championship, his first one, it’s an amazing feeling.”

As Turgeon discussed the moment he stood above the crowd and relished in the moment of his first championship at Maryland, he reflected on how difficult winning a league championship is, especially in this season’s volatile Big Ten conference race.

“I’m not into a lot of things,” Turgeon said. “But to hang a banner, that’s pretty cool. [Maryland’s] only done it seven times before in 100 years, so we’ve done it eight times now.”

When Turgeon’s squad wrapped up the regular-season title, the proverbial gorilla left his back, at least for now. Turgeon will now turn his attention to the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments, looking to shake off any other March mammals that may be weighing on him.

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