Basketball Around the Beltway: Maryland moves on with Melo

This is the first of our 2016 area school basketball previews. Keep an eye out for a new preview every day next week as the college hoops season gets ready to tip off.

WASHINGTON — Sometimes, 40 minutes can make all the difference. A win over a ranked team in November can give a school the needed push to get into the field, while a conference loss on the road in February often downgrades their NCAA Tournament seeding by a few lines — or worse.

The Maryland men’s basketball team plays 31 games this winter, but coach Mark Turgeon already has one winning evening to look back on. It came early in the offseason, when he knew he was losing Jake Layman, Rasheed Sulaimon, Diamond Stone and Robert Carter, Jr. to the pros. After winning 55 games over the last two years, the question was whether Turgeon could build off that momentum.

“Justin Jackson committed to me about 8:30 and Melo called (to say he was staying) about 9,” Turgeon said of the four-star recruit and his star point guard. “That was a pretty good half an hour right there. My staff did some amazing things late (in the recruiting process). It was exhausting to say the least — the late signings — but we did some amazing things that will give us a chance to be a good team this year.”

Trimble’s return to campus for his junior season certainly changes the mindset of this winter from one of rebuilding (he would have been the fifth starter to depart) to one of reloading (21st in the coaches’ poll and 25th in the writers’ rankings). And while you could have made the case over his first two years with the Terps that Trimble was the best player on his team, this season, he’s not just the best player, but this is also undoubtedly his team.

“He’s done a lot of the little things that have really helped him become a better leader. He’s getting more comfortable,” Coach Turgeon explained. “To be a good leader you’ve got to have guys that listen to you too, and I think guys have bought into Melo’s leadership, which is helping him.”

The junior from Upper Marlboro, Maryland averaged a team-high 15 points and five assists per game last winter while also leading the team in steals. Junior Jared Nickens and senior Damonte Dodd also played more than 15 minutes per game last winter, while redshirt sophomore Dion Wiley comes back after missing all of 2015-16 with a knee injury.

It’s not always easy to see the forest for the trees. One of the byproducts of last year’s productive post game was the clogging up of the lane in the perimeter players’ paths to the basket. Not so this year, as Trimble is excited about playing small ball.

“I feel great about that,” Melo said about his smaller lineup at Maryland media day. “We can actually run, get into the paint, create driving lanes and kick out for threes. Last year we wasn’t able to do that because we had really good post presence with Diamond (Stone) and Rob (Carter), but this year we’re very fast and we can shoot, so I think we’re gonna have a lot of fun with that.”

Expect Trimble, Nickens and Wiley to unload early and often from outside.

Dodd leads the big men this winter, as the senior has been a solid contributor while averaging 15 minutes a game the last two seasons.

“We’ll be by committee on the low post. I’ve got some things up my sleeve that I might try as the year goes on,” Turgeon said. “I think Demonte’s growing. L.G. Gill’s growing down there. Hopefully Ceko (Slovakian center Michal Cekovsky) is going to be able to give us some stuff down there.”

Gill comes to Maryland as a graduate transfer after starting at Duquesne, where he led the Dukes in rebounding last winter. Despite last year’s vaunted size, the Terps were in the middle of the pack of the Big Ten in rebounding margin. Perhaps it takes a village after all.

In addition to Gill, contributions will be expected from the five freshmen on this year’s roster.

“I think the guys we’ve brought in this year really have a great feel of when to shoot and when to pass … and a great feel defensively,” Turgeon said, “That’s exciting. I think the smarter your players are the better coach you are.”

New York’s Mr. Basketball Kevin Huerter has international experience after playing in the 2016 FIBA Americas U18 Championships, and his lanky frame and reliable shot already have him being compared to the ex-Terp Layman (the facial hair will have to come later). Anthony Cowan’s a four-star recruit from nearby Bowie and St. John’s College HS, while Justin Jackson is your stereotypical Canadian forward who is 6-foot-7, but boasts a 7-foot-3 wingspan. Micah Thomas and Joshua Tomaic (from the Canary Islands) add frontcourt depth.

The season begins with a local flavor as the Terps will have nonconference dates against American, Howard, Towson and Georgetown. After last year’s 75-71 thriller in College Park, Melo Trimble and company play the Hoyas this year in the District.

“I’m very excited,” said Trimble. “I’ve never had the chance to play at Verizon Center. In high school I had the opportunity to play there, but once [Bishop O’Connell] won they took the championship game out of there.”

He’s not alone in his excitement.

“It’s great for this area,” said Turgeon. “And of course both games (in the current series) have been nationally televised. I think Georgetown’s probably a little further along than we are this year, a little more experience than we have. Should be a heck of a game.”

The Big Ten Tournament will also be held at Verizon Center this season, and the league looks just as loaded as it was last season when four teams finished in the Top 25, and seven schools made the NCAA Tournament. Wisconsin returns conference preseason player of the year Nigel Hayes, while Michigan State brings back Tom Izzo and the Spartan culture. Indiana and Purdue look to build on strong showings from last winter (Hoosier fans shouting “BANNERS!” the entire time at their Boilermaker booster counterparts). Maryland, Michigan and Ohio State are each within shouting distance of the Top 20. As fans who saw the Top 10 Terps fall at winless in the league Minnesota last winter, there are no off nights. Anywhere.

Turgeon enters his sixth season, through another different door at Xfinity Center. In 2014 the question was, “Could you lead this team to the NCAA’s?” Last fall the question was, “Can this team win it all?” This year the question is about sustaining a program that has won 55 games over the last two winters and whether his program is one that rebuilds or one that reloads. He’s already re-upped: Last month, the coach signed a four-year contract extension that runs through the 2022-23 campaign.

Is there anything the Mark Turgeon of 2016 would tell the Mark Turgeon that took over the Terps in 2011?

“Oh, I don’t know. Just stay the course, believe in the process,” Turgeon said. “I’m really proud of what we’ve done — — it hasn’t been easy — and where we are today. I’m looking forward to a lot of great years in a row.”

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