COLLEGE PARK — The early hysteria from the spring had quieted. The preseason hype about Diamond Stone being the Maryland men's basketball team's most talented big man since Joe Smith had faded, too.
It's not that Stone had been a disappointment over the first month of his freshman season. Far from it. It's just that the role Stone and others envisioned him playing had evolved much differently than expected.
And then, on Dec. 30, it happened.
It started quietly, with another solid stint off the bench against Penn State in the opening half of Stone's first Big Ten Conference game. The explosion followed shortly after Stone took the floor at Xfinity Center to start the second half.
The springtime hysteria returned as Stone left the court to a standing ovation and many in the announced sellout crowd chanting his first name. Teammates hugged him in celebration of having broken Smith's single-game freshman scoring record and Ernie Graham's school record for most points in a half.
The hype is back, too, as Stone is being mentioned among the best freshmen in the country after being named the Big Ten Player of the Week and Wayman Tisdale National Freshman of the Week.
Just in time for his much-awaited homecoming Saturday at Wisconsin's Kohl Center.
"I'm just really excited to come back home, to play in front of my family and friends," Stone told reporters Thursday at Xfinity Center. "I know they're going to be excited to see me play since I've played there every year in high school in the state championship game."
'One of the bad guys'
In helping lead Dominican to a state championship as a freshman with a state-record 14 blocked shots in the semifinal, then powering the Knights to championships the next three years, Stone was thought of by many in Milwaukee, his hometown, as a favorite son and in Madison as a future Badger.
When Stone returns to Wisconsin to play for the first time in college, it will be as someone viewed much differently since choosing rapidly ascending and third-ranked Maryland (14-1, 3-0) over recent national power Wisconsin (9-7, 1-2), which after rebuilding much of its roster is now in the process of a coaching transition with the early-season retirement of Bo Ryan.
"I understand the regional pride, and he's one of the bad guys this week," said Stone's father, Bob. "He'll probably get some boos. I think he'll handle it pretty good. The hostile environment won't be unique to Diamond. When the [Milwaukee] Bucks played the [Minnesota] Timberwolves in Madison, they booed [former Kentucky star] Karl-Anthony Towns and [former Duke star Tyus] Jones. He's coming in wearing the wrong jersey."
And just as his Twitter handle ("All Eyes On Me") suggests, Badgers fans will be watching — and likely expressing their full-throated disapproval of Stone's commitment in March.
"I'll use their energy as motivation," he said. "I will just play hard and just try to go for the win. … If the crowd is loud, that's the kind of environment I like to play in. I like to play in big environments. I'm ready to play."
Maryland senior guard Rasheed Sulaimon, who faced a different kind of hostility when the Duke graduate transfer returned to play at North Carolina this season, said Wednesday that he planned to talk with Stone about what he might face.
"Just trusting our offense, don't do anything differently than what we've been doing all year," Sulaimon said. "That's what crowds want you to do. They want to get you out of your comfort zone and they want you to make it a personal vendetta where you go one-on-five. But Diamond can dominate the game plan."
Business as usual
Given the fact that he might have been viewed as some sort of savior at Wisconsin with the departure of center Frank Kaminsky and forward Sam Dekker after they led the Badgers to the NCAA final against Duke last season, Stone said his role with the Terps has eased the burden of expectations.
"That's the main reason why I picked Maryland," he said. "We have a great point guard in Melo Trimble; he's probably the best point guard I've ever played with. His vision is off the charts, he makes plays for everybody. Anybody on our bench can play in the game. That's why I wanted to be around them. I want to be on a championship contender. I want to win games."
Stone looks at Saturday's game the same way he did Maryland's first three conference games, in which he averaged team highs of 21.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks while shooting 20-for-29 from the field and 24-for-30 from the free-throw line.
"It's just a regular Big Ten game to me. The only difference is that there'll be a lot of family and friends there," he said.
Since being moved to the bench eight games ago — he started Wednesday against Rutgers after what Turgeon said Thursday was a bookkeeping error — Stone has flourished in his role as the team's sixth man.
Admittedly, it took a while for Stone to be comfortable doing something he had not since the fourth grade.
"Actually, I kind of accepted it and I realized that we're a team. It's not just all about me," he said recently. "If we're winning and I'm coming off the bench, it's a good win. It's no more individual goals anymore. This is college, and we're all one unit."
Stone said he texted Turgeon after the Dec. 19 game against Princeton in Baltimore to say, "I embrace coming off the bench." His coach texted him back "saying that he appreciated it. That means I'm a team player."
Practice makes perfect
After struggling at times during preseason practice and early in the season — including a five-point, one-rebound game in 14 minutes against Georgetown — Stone started to understand that there was a carryover from practice to games.
"I think once I started practicing harder, everything changed," he said. "If you practice well, it pays off, so I think my practice habits are getting better, so I think I'm starting to play well. … It's a battle every day in practice with that group [of big men]. It's only going to get better."
Said Turgeon: "He's come a long ways. I think as he grows and matures, he's starting to realize how important everything that we do is with the teaching. There's a reason we're doing it. He's been able to get by with talent his whole life, and he still gets by with talent. I think he realizes that if he puts more into the game, it will give him more back."
Stone's parents, Bob and Cynthia, are "quite comfortable" with their son's choice of college, his father said. Bob Stone, a former Division II All-America center at Wisconsin-Whitewater, also is pleased with Turgeon's tough-love approach.
"I've been happy with the way Mark has brought him along," he said. "We talked about it in the recruiting process, and he's done pretty much everything he said he was going to do. He's put expectations on Diamond, he's pushed Diamond, he's stretched Diamond."
Said Turgeon: "I'm probably harder on Diamond than most of the team because he has the furthest to go. He didn't like it at first, but I think he's getting more used to it. When you have guys with talent, you really want to push them because you know there's more in them."
Stone has grown close to several of his teammates, and many, in particular Sulaimon and junior forward Robert Carter Jr., have made sure the team's emerging star center doesn't stray too far.
"He's a young kid, and things are probably moving fast for him. But the way they've brought him around, and some of the older guys on the team, they're kind of helping him on and off the court making a lot of adjustments," Bob Stone said. "I think there were times that Diamond might not have appreciated it. He's out there experiencing life and thinking he's a grown-up now, but that's a great group of kids."
Stone's longtime basketball trainer and coach, DeShawn Curtis, who will attend Saturday's game with a large contingent of Stone's family and friends from Milwaukee, doesn't think it will help Wisconsin's cause if fans give the freshman too hard a time.
"Fans that tend to heckle players, it's one of those situations where you don't want to poke the bear to wake him up," Curtis said this week. "The fans would be better off if they left him alone."
Stone goes back to a familiar place with a new identity.
"Milwaukee's always been my home, but Maryland's my new home," he said Thursday, smiling. "I love the campus here, I love my teammates, I love the seafood here."
Just like Stone's game, the hype and hysteria continue to grow.