Maryland basketball is set up to succeed even without Melo Trimble next season

What will life be like for the Maryland men’s basketball team after Melo?

With junior guard Melo Trimble announcing Wednesday that he will forgo his final year of college eligibility, sign with an agent and put his name into the NBA draft, the Terps will have to move forward without the most significant player in coach Mark Turgeon’s six-year tenure in College Park.

Just as Maryland was able to survive the departure of star guard Dez Wells in 2015-16 with the return of Trimble, and were able to cope without four starters from last year's team, next season’s Terps should be just fine.

Eventually.

Will Turgeon miss a player who helped return the program to prominence en route to three straight NCAA tournament appearances and a 79-25 overall record?

Of course.

Will the Terps have to figure out how to replace a player who was their leading scorer for three straight seasons and the focal point of every scouting report the past two years?

Without a doubt.

But the experience gained by the three freshmen who started the majority of this season and emerged as key players on a 24-9 team has jump-started Maryland’s future, and given Turgeon a snapshot of what the Terps will look like the next couple of years.

Given how much responsibility Turgeon placed on point guard Anthony Cowan in running the team, Cowan will help overcome the loss of a player who seemed to always have the ball in his hands as the 30-second shot clock was about to expire, or when the game was on the line.

While Cowan might not yet have Trimble’s ability to break down a defense and his knack for knocking down big shots, he will have help from Kevin Huerter and Justin Jackson. All three had their moments as freshmen, especially during the team’s program-best 20-2 start.

It might also take some pressure off Turgeon to feel compelled to rely on one player – namely Trimble – so much. For all his late-game heroics, there were many times when Trimble went off-script in crunch time and tried to put the Terps on his shoulders rather than share the burden – and the ball.

“I think this means a lot more guys will step up and kind of grow up quicker,” Huerter said Wednesday. “I think Melo kind of hid obviously a lot of stuff, he was able to do more one-on-one stuff when the offense broke down, he could get quick baskets for us.”

Just as the Terps became more of a team for the first three months of the season than they had been for nearly all of the previous season, Maryland should become even more cohesive next season, with three sophomores to share the leadership role and two freshmen to help fill any voids.

Huerter was the first three-year captain at his high school school in upstate New York, and could do that in College Park. He was Maryland’s go-to guy at various points of games throughout his freshman year, particularly the last two, when Trimble was struggling with his shot.

Cowan is a natural leader who purposely played with a lot less emotion as a freshman than he did at St. John’s College High, where he led the team to a WCAC title past a DeMatha team led by Markelle Fultz, the expected No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA draft.

Jackson is something of a wild card. There were a few games when he dominated the competition, most notably with back-to-back double-doubles on the road at Minnesota and Ohio State, when he averaged 25 points and 11 rebounds. There were many more games when he simply disappeared.

Asked if he sees taking on more of a scoring role next season, Huerter said: “I think a lot of people do. All the freshmen [from last season’s team] need to step up and score a little bit more and fill the void that Melo’s 17, 20 points a game. Obviously I’m leaving this year with a lot of confidence, and hopefully it will carry over to next year, working hard in the offseason.”  

Huerter said that the Terps lacked leadership – particularly vocal leadership – at times last season.

"That was something we felt we maybe lacked last year was a strong kind of leader,” Huerter said.  “Melo just wasn’t the most vocal person; he was someone guys looked up to and followed his actions, not as much his words. That was something that was big all year.

“That was something Coach stressed in everyone’s meetings [Tuesday]. He wants us to be more vocal as a team, especially with the freshmen -- we need to talk more. It’s up to me, Justin and Anthony. We’re going to kind of move up into a leadership type of role.”    

As for the two freshmen who are signed, Bruno Fernando and Darryl Morsell should fit in nicely. Fernando, a 6-foot-10, 245-pound power forward from Angola, gives Turgeon the luxury of moving Jackson and Huerter to their natural positions. Morsell (Mount Saint Joseph), a 6-5, 200-pound guard, can play both on and off the ball.

Huerter, who played against Fernando in AAU competition, said that the player who spent his senior year at the IMG Academy in Florida “is a lot better than I think people realize. We all feel as players that he was a steal, for sure.”

This is not to say that the Terps won’t go through a transition of playing without Trimble, just as they did playing without Wells or without the experienced Robert Carter Jr., Jake Layman and Rasheed Sulaimon.

But just as the departure of Joe Smith more than two decades ago led to Maryland becoming a perennial NCAA tournament team and eventually to a national champion with Juan Dixon, the same thing is possible for the Terps in their life after Trimble.

It’s going to be different not seeing No. 2 out there next season, since few players have had the kind of impact Trimble had during his three years in leading the Terps back from the abyss. Still, with the return of three starters and the arrival of two freshmen expected to play significant roles, it’s not going to be so bad.

don.markus@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sportsprof56

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