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Florida vs. Maryland, Game Thread: Can the Gators finish a weird week well?

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Florida has had an up-and-down week on the court. But Maryland’s up-and-down years finally got the best of Mark Turgeon — and there’s a potentially instructive parallel there.

NCAA Basketball: North Florida at Florida Matt Pendleton-USA TODAY Sports

Florida men’s basketball’s week so far: Get trounced by Texas Southern, trample North Florida, and then travel to Brooklyn to take on another power conference program on the one-year anniversary of Keyontae Johnson’s collapse.

Finishing it out against Maryland (4:30 p.m., Big Ten Network or BTN+) brings the Gators into contact with another program that’s arguably had an even weirder year.

That starts at the top for the Terrapins, and with Mark Turgeon no longer being there. He resigned on December 3, not even a full month into what would have been his 11th regular season in College Park, and has been succeeded on an interim basis by former Kansas legend and Wake Forest head coach Danny Manning.

The Terps have only played one game since, a 67-61 loss to a decent Northwestern team, but their 5-4 record that includes no wins better than an 86-80 triumph in a track meet against Richmond is still a disappointing mark for the program.

Maryland hasn’t yet established its identity as a Big Ten program since swapping affiliations from the ACC, but its recent tale is arguably one of stalled momentum. Turgeon, who had significant success at Wichita State and then made four NCAA Tournaments at Texas A&M before arriving at Maryland, seemed to be building the Terrapins into a power midway through the 2010s, when it made three straight NCAA Tournaments. And the 2019-20 team that he could’ve piloted to an Elite Eight or Final Four didn’t get a chance to play in a 2020 NCAA Tournament thanks to its cancellation.

But Maryland also fell hard last year, going from a 24-7 team that shared the ACC title in 2019-20 to a 17-14 outfit in 2020-21. The losses of Anthony Cowan and Jalen Smith to the professional ranks turned a balanced, excellent team with only a few weaknesses into a balanced, good team with few outstanding strengths that got beaten up on by a brutal Big Ten. And with the early going this year including a surprising home loss to George Mason and failures to score 60 points in losses to Louisville and Virginia Tech, Turgeon leaving a job that he had reportedly been increasingly frustrated by — and one that Maryland fans had started to resent him having — was no great surprise.

Turgeon apparently being most perturbed by the loss of faith from fans, though, has been an unusual development in this college basketball season — and when Gonzaga coach Mark Few, a longtime friend of Turgeon, spoke up in no uncertain terms about it this week, that only made things more strange.

There are parallels to Florida’s own situation here — but while Mike White’s results cannot placate a small but loud band of critics on social media, for whom every loss seems to be counted twice while every win counts for half, it would be difficult to suggest those results are not superior to Turgeon’s over a shorter span of time in practically every way outside of a conference title.

And while Gators fans are not booing White during introductions, Florida also does not have quite the length of basketball tradition the Terrapins do, though Florida’s peaks outstrip Maryland’s thanks to three strong decades. (Maryland has made the Sweet Sixteen in every decade since the 1950s except for the 1960s; Florida made its first in 1987.)

The depth of disgruntlement is longer in College Park, even if the previous tenures of Hall of Fame coaches (Lefty Driesell and Gary Williams at Maryland, Lon Kruger and Billy Donovan) have left long shadows. Maybe it’s because Williams never quite had a second act like Donovan’s, never making a Sweet Sixteen after 2003, or because Maryland shuffling off to the Big Ten and losing rivals it had known for decades as a founding member of the ACC helped instigate an identity crisis. Maybe those Maryland fans chirping on social media are also fans who go to the games, making their displeasure heard in literal fashion.

But the Gators are still potentially ascending this season, even with that Texas Southern loss as an anchor, and the Terps are treading water. Senior Eric Ayala is shooting his worst percentages from the floor and distance; Fatts Russell, imported from Rhode Island as a transfer whose four-year career with the Rams was impressive, has not been a net positive on the floor; former Georgetown big Qudus Wahab has been mighty inside on occasion, but has also been mightily inconsistent.

Even with their bruising loss, the Gators have what looks to be a better resume than Maryland’s, and probably a better roster. They might struggle to defend Wahab, will probably need to both close out on sharpshooter Hakim Hart and make some threes of their own to build a comfortable lead, and can obviously take nothing for granted after their laid egg a week ago.

But if fans effectively booed Turgeon off his big chair, what comes next for Maryland over a long season in which teams like Florida — good ones, if maybe not great ones — lurk all around the Big Ten, with a few monsters also laying in wait, and Manning only gets to steer the same ship that Turgeon left at sea, it seems unlikely the near future will please them any more than the recent past did.

Is that better for those fans than the same old frustrations clouding out any ability to derive joy from the games?

With an effort featuring its typical defensive intensity and some made shots, Florida might give them another chance to contemplate that quandary.