COLLEGE PARK, Md. (AP) - Like many of the freshmen on his first basketball team at Maryland, Mark Turgeon needed a full season to find out what it's like to compete in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
One year after replacing long-time Terrapins coach Gary Williams, Turgeon has a better understanding of his own squad - and the competition in one of the toughest conferences in the nation.
"It's completely different," Turgeon said. "When I took over the job at Maryland, I didn't know much about the ACC. But now I have a feel for the league and the coaches and what it takes to be successful at this level. Our coaches are much more comfortable together. We also have some returning players, and that helps teach the new players how to do it."
Maryland lost standout guard and leading scorer Terrell Stoglin, who received a one-year disciplinary suspension in April and decided to leave the team. But several key players return from the squad that went 17-15, 6-10 in the ACC - most notably 7-foot-1 sophomore center Alex Len, 6-8 senior forward James Padgett and guards Pe'Shon Howard and Nick Faust.
Len, of the Ukraine, went through an adjustment period that was far more difficult and extraordinary than most first-year students.
"The first three months was the hardest because I didn't know the language," he said. "I knew a little bit, but it wasn't good enough to communicate with teammates."
Len needed time to grow accustomed to a new culture, strange food and different people. Having finally gotten that out of the way, he expects to be far less tentative in the middle of the lane.
"I feel much more confident than I did last year," Len said.
With Len, Padgett, and highly touted freshmen Shaquille Cleare (6-9, 262 pounds) and Charles Mitchell (6-8, 260) rotating in the frontcourt, the Terrapins expect to control the boards against most teams.
"The good thing is we have James Padgett and Alex Len, so that's nice," Turgeon said. "Alex is a totally different player and we know James improved a lot during the season last year. You also have Shaq, who was highly recruited, and he's a big strong kid who likes to hit things. He's fun to coach and a great kid. He gives us a dynamic that we didn't have before."
Howard said, "Last year, when we played North Carolina, we hung in there with them. Just at the end of the game, their physicality, their length and strength kind of wore us down. With the team now, I think we can compete with that. The guys we have, they're long and they're strong. Our defense is going to be able to stretch the floor. We're going to be able to rebound and get out and have an up-tempo style."
Despite losing Stoglin, the Terrapins are not lacking talent in the backcourt. Howard appears to have fully recovered from foot and knee injuries that limited him to 14 games last year. Faust played in all 32 games as a freshman, averaging 28 minutes and 8.9 points while dishing out 66 assists.
Freshmen Seth Allen, Jake Layman, along with senior transfer Logan Aronhalt, provide depth at guard.
"It's been up and down, but it has been good," Turgeon said. "The more we run, the better Jake and Seth are. Logan has a good feel for being in the right spot for us. The young guys, excluding Logan, their heads are spinning a little bit because of all of the things being thrown at them. But I expect them to just keep getting better."
Improvement will have to come in a hurry if the Terrapins are to make a solid first impression in Turgeon's second year. Maryland opens on Nov. 9 against defending national champion Kentucky in the Barclays Center Classic in New York.
"I am sure our guys are excited about that game," Turgeon said. "It's just a great opportunity for us. (Kentucky coach) John Calipari is a friend of mine, and John was at Kansas when I was a player. Literally I had just landed in Maryland, and I got off the plane and my phone rings and it's Cal, and he offers me this game. It's a no-brainer for me. This game will be a great help to prepare us for our season and hopefully for postseason play."
Maryland hasn't reached the postseason since 2010, but Howard believes the Terrapins are poised to end the dry spell.
"Everything has improved from last year," he said. "Physically and mentally, everyone is stronger. We all have the same goal: Everyone wants to win. We have much more depth in our team this year, and we have a lot of talented athletes. We really have a full team now."