Here Maryland sits, neither overwhelmingly great nor stupefyingly dreadful, as it closes out its most ardous stretch of the season.
The Terrapins are 15-5 overall, 3-4 in the ACC and a decidedly borderline postseason candidate entering Wednesday's trip to Florida State.
There are, to be sure, plenty of games remaining between now and the end of the regular season --- at least a dozen, maybe a couple more. But the prism through which this Maryland outfit is view might be solidifying.
So it was fascinating to watch Mark Turgeon attempt to set (or reset) how his second Terps team is gauged in the weeks to come.
"Expectations sometimes get ahead of the team," Turgeon said Tuesday. "We have to remember where we were last year and where we are today."
So, about those two places in time. ...
Last year, Maryland was a 17-15 team with one potent scorer (Terrell Stoglin) and little consistent interior play. It faced a narrow path to victory on most nights, narrower still when it didn't have Alex Len in the first 10 games or Pe'Shon Howard in the season's opening and closing stretches.
It was, put simply, a team with modest talent and not nearly enough of an aptitude for defense. It relied heavily on one player to carry the offensive load.
This year, the Terps are quite young, with four freshmen and three sophomores logging considerable time. Seven of the top eight players in minutes during conference play are freshmen or sophomores. The team's lone fourth-year senior, James Padgett, has drifted into single-digit minutes territory. Junior point guard Pe'Shon Howard lost his starting job this month.
It is also a roster mostly of Turgeon's creation; only two of the 10 regulars played for Maryland before the coach's arrival less than two years ago. And it is undeniably a more talented roster than last season's, even if some holes still remain.
It wasn't unreasonable to think the Terps would make a run at an NCAA tournament bid this season, and perhaps even vie for more once Dez Wells was declared eligible in November. But how much more?
Turgeon wasn't going there. But he does have an idea what he believes is in play.
"At this level, unless you’re [Kentucky coach John] Calipari, you don’t go from 17-15 to the national championship game," Turgeon said. "You just don’t. We’re improved. We’re better. The league’s better. It’s more of a challenge. I know there’s some people around here who think we should be in the Final Four, but they’re not realistic. Who knows where we’ll be two months from now. We could be a heck of a team. But we have a lot of improving to do to do that. I like the way we’re heading."
It's tough to guess exactly who that message was aimed at. Is it players who might have thought things would be easy after a 13-1 start? Or fans who for some reason or another were stunned Maryland encountered an angry Duke team Saturday?
(There's also the outside chance the message was intended for scribes, but let's be serious: It almost certainly was not).
Turgeon isn't wrong in his latest attempt to manage expectations (he did quite a bit of that in the preseason, too), even if his message surely won't be welcomed by the less patient members of his team's fanbase. The Terps, however promising they appeared to be, aren't a juggernaut. They do, however, possess the foundation of a strong team in a few years.
At least that's what Turgeon hopes. He sees seven upperclassmen as a core that will remain together for a while. While that might not happen (Alex Len probably isn't a four-year college player, for example), it doesn't change the current state of affairs.
"We’re a young team, but I don’t think it’s an excuse," center Shaquille Cleare said. "A lot of teams around the country have a lot of young players and they’re playing well together. I wouldn’t use that as an excuse. He’s right [in that] we have a lot of growing up to do and still have to mature a lot."
The maturity issue is a big one for Turgeon, who benched guard Seth Allen for the first half Saturday after he was late for a meeting. Yet there are also on-court issues to contend with, such as impatience on offense and poor shot selection.
"Sometimes we don’t have to takethe big shot or the long shot," guard Nick Faust said. "I feel like it’s just on us and excute beter and be more mature."
And what of his own choices?
"You’ll always be like ‘That was a bad shot,’" Faust said. "But the flip side of that is if you make it, it’s a great shot. It’s just whether it goes in or not."
That is likely an oversimplification of what constitutes a prudent choice and a poor one on offense. It also reflects precisely what Turgeon is working with in his second season, a group of players still in the early stages of their basketball development.
And so the Terps are 15-5, neither a sure-fire NCAA tournament team nor a smoldering dumpster fire. They might not become either before the season is out, but the future beyond that is promising.
That's the truth Turgeon effectively offered up Tuesday, offering a hint of his own optimism about the long-term trajectory of the program without going overboard on what the next month or so might yield.
"It’s not like we’re 5-15," Turgeon said. "We’re right in the middle, right where we need to be. I’ve been here before. We just have to start playing better and practicing better, and I think we will. I think we’re in good shape. ... I think the future looks pretty good. I hope the future starts Wednesday night."
--- Patrick Stevens