Considered 'cream of the crop,' Terps, Melo Trimble plan to prove people right

Melo Trimble is the Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year and the Terps are ranked No. 3 in the USA Today Coach

This fall, Melo Trimble, being a student at Maryland, went to a Terps football game. At some point in the afternoon, the men's basketball team's sophomore guard got up from his seat. He wandered over to the Byrd Stadium concourse.

It was as if Justin Bieber had arrived. There were fans and photo requests and attention. So much attention.

"I was kind of surprised by how many people know me," Trimble recalled Thursday at the Big Ten Conference's media day. "A lot of people like me. I wasn't really expecting that after one season."

This week was another reminder that Trimble, and his Terps, have their admirers. On Wednesday, Trimble was named the Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year. On Thursday, the Terps were voted the nation's No. 3 team in the USA Today Coaches Poll, behind only Kentucky and North Carolina, which shared the top billing.

This was what he and senior forward Jake Layman, also a preseason All-Big Ten selection, came back for: To have Michigan State coach Tom Izzo call Maryland the league's "cream of the crop." To hear questions not about their transition to the Big Ten but about their plans to dominate it. To maybe, just maybe, lead the Terps back to the Final Four and perhaps beyond.

"I know this team could do really good things, and a lot of people are talking about us," Trimble said, "and we just want to prove to a lot of people that what they're saying is right."

In College Park, not much is wrong. After preseason injuries to Evan Smotrycz and Layman last year and Seth Allen the year before, the Terps are, heading into Saturday night's Magic Maryland Madness event, healthy. Just to be sure, coach Mark Turgeon, sitting at a table with reporters inside the Chicago Marriott O'Hare hotel, rapped the table once with his knuckles, as if to ward off any elements that dare threaten the most talented team in his five seasons as coach.

Maybe the best distillation of the type of challenges he faces this year, if you can call it a challenge, is the center position. Diamond Stone, a five-star recruit and the team's most highly rated NBA draft prospect since Alex Len, was the first player he was asked about Thursday. He might not even start, only because the incumbent, junior Damonte Dodd, is, in Turgeon's estimation, a candidate for defensive-player-of-the-year honors. As in, the kind that go to the best defender in the nation.

"Obviously, we're looking forward to this season," Turgeon said. "We're excited. Really like my team. Really like my guys. The thing I like about them the most is, with all the expectations, they've really just worked harder because of them."

A year after a program-record 26 regular-season wins and runner-up finish in the Big Ten, the Terps are, on paper, expected to go from the league's surprise team to maybe its supreme team. Trimble and Layman passed on the draft, returning to a roster bolstered by talents new, improving and relocated.

Joining Trimble in the backcourt will be Duke graduate transfer Rasheed Sulaimon, a senior shooting guard who, Turgeon said, "can flat-out defend."

"He's a player. He's a talented player," said Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, whose Badgers played Duke before Sulaimon became the first Blue Devils player to be kicked off a team in coach Mike Krzyzewski's 35 seasons at the school. "How he's going to fit in with them, that's their decision. I imagine they'll find a spot for him, don't you?"

His place in the lineup is probably as secure as Robert Carter Jr.'s. A junior forward who sat out last season after transferring from Georgia Tech, Carter is "unstoppable" in pick-and-pop action, Layman said, a scary thought considering Trimble's his most likely running mate. Carter also has lost weight and gained a voice in the locker room: Layman called him the team's most vocal leader.

His pairing with Layman, transitioning back to his more natural small-forward position, makes for one of the country's top forward tandems.

"And that's going to open up a lot for the guards," Trimble said of the team's inside prowess.

A deep bench is another kind of good dilemma. Stone is "really good on the block," Trimble said. Dion Wiley, Jared Nickens and Michal Cekovsky are sophomores now, with the accompanying leap forward. Junior-college transfer Jaylen Brantley gives Trimble what he lacked last year: a true backup at point guard, yes, but also the freedom to play defense like he can.

But how to manage their playing time? At one point Thursday, Turgeon sounded like Alabama football coach Nick Saban in his own vision for the team. He spoke often of "the process," of subjugating individual goals to program ambitions.

"There's going to be some games where the process is good for you to play more and other nights it's not," he said. "You've got to get that. You've got to understand it."

He added: "I have a team that believes we needed all of these pieces to be at this level."

Still, there are pitfalls, and they are plentiful. The schedule is unforgiving, with games at North Carolina, Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue and Indiana. There might be another injury, though Turgeon said the team's depth is such that one could be "overcome." Only Turgeon and his team have seen what their on-court product might be, and media days are not the place to play down expectations.

Maryland plays Mount St. Mary's in its season opener Nov. 13. Until then, the team will practice and the buzz will build. Trimble has seen how fans respond to a good season. Just what would they do after a great season? The Terps don't have many questions. That's surely one of them.

"Did I see Diamond Stone coming to Maryland? No, I didn't see that," Turgeon said. "Did I see Rasheed Sulaimon popping open and he ends up at Maryland? No, I didn't see that happening. … It's all kind of come together for us this year with the talent. And now we've got to do it, of course, on the floor."

jshaffer@baltsun.com

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