Last week Maryland chose Texas A&M coach Mark Turgeon to replace Gary Williams, who retired after 22 seasons in College Park. It goes without saying that when a major-conference men's basketball program hires a new head coach, there's always a good deal of commentary offered up more or less instantly on the alleged quality of that hire. Like for instance the piece you're reading right now. But before I add my comments to the discussion of this hire, allow me to note that I'm a big believer in listening to what the athletic director says in these situations.
With that in mind, here's what Maryland AD Kevin Anderson said when he announced Turegon's hiring:
In Mark, we have brought one of the outstanding young coaches in the country, and one who has a proven record of achievement on and off the court. We couldn't be more excited.
Let's consider each of Anderson's claims in order, shall we?
This is generically correct when applied to Turgeon. He is after all a head coach with four seasons at the helm of a Big 12 program under his belt. In addition Turgeon, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, was named his conference's coach of the year in each of the past two seasons. The Aggies reached the NCAA tournament every year during his tenure. Of course any coach who's going to be seriously considered for a job this good will be "outstanding" relative to his peers. A better question might be whether Turgeon stands out among the coaches accomplished enough to make it on to the Terrapins' short list.
Certainly there's at least one sense in which Turgeon most definitely stands out: pace. Under Gary Williams, Maryland played at a tempo that was faster than the ACC average, while under Turgeon Texas A&M played at a speed that was slower than normal for the Big 12. Nevertheless, concerns that Maryland's choice may lead to a slower ACC are perhaps somewhat mistimed. The league-wide deceleration has happened already. Turgeon's arriving too late to take part in the ACC's big slow-down.
The ACC hits the brakes
Possessions per 40 minutes, 2008-11
Conference games only
True, the ACC could conceivably slow down a little more, but that would merely bring the conference "down" to about the speed already exhibited by the Big East (65 trips per 40 minutes), and no one yells at that league for being too deliberate. As long as there's a Big Ten (62 possessions), every other major conference's pace will always look "normal" by comparison.
Code for "under 50." Turgeon's 46, just a couple years younger than Bill Self. Both coaches were guards in what was then called the Big Eight in the mid-1980s: Turgeon at Kansas, Self at Oklahoma State.
In four seasons at College Station, Turgeon's Texas A&M teams played about 4,200 possessions of basketball against the Big 12. Over that time the Aggies scored 1.04 points per possession while allowing 1.02 points per trip. That may not sound particularly impressive -- not long ago I pointed out that over the last five years Self has posted much better numbers at Kansas -- but scoring more points than your opponents in a major-conference over multiple seasons does put a head coach in a fairly select group.
Note additionally that Turgeon's recruiting the past few years has been pretty good. A&M isn't exactly a college hoops hotbed, nor is College Station a mecca for the nation's top prospects. Nevertheless the coach was able to land a steady stream of four-star recruits, players who proved equal to the task of getting the Aggies to the NCAA tournament every season without fail.
"On and off the court."
Code for "Not only did he win, there weren't any infractions and there aren't any whispers." Indeed Turgeon has a reputation as a solid hoops citizen.
"We couldn't be more excited."
Well, there had to be one claim that stretches reality. I think Maryland could be more excited. If the Terps had hired one of those oh-so "hot" up-and-coming coaches (do I even need to say their names?) or if they'd somehow tricked someone even more proven than Turgeon into taking the job, right now the Maryland faithful would be more excited. Of course current excitement doesn't guarantee future success.
I think the Turgeon hire once again underscores the fundamental reality behind any coaching search. Fans can dream all they wish, but in the end an athletic director can only hire someone who's actually available. Turgeon's a relatively young head coach with major-conference and NCAA tournament experience who's highly regarded by his peers and was willing to take the Maryland job. The number of candidates that you can say all those things about can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
Athletic directors should be required to adhere to their own version of the Hippocratic oath: abstain from doing harm. Maryland AD Anderson has met that threshold with this hire. Now it's up to Turgeon to show that he can be outstanding in a league populated by the likes of Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski. If he succeeds I guarantee no one will care about a trifling stylistic matter like pace.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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