COLLEGE PARK — Maryland men's basketball coach Mark Turgeon has been preaching the same message since the start of preseason practice, knowing the kind of outsized expectations being put on his Terps.
Turgeon has been telling his players in the privacy of individual meetings and team workouts that the improvement of several players in areas of weakness would be critical. That progress is now on public dispay for the 15-1 Terps, ranked No. 3 in the country for the second straight week and off to the best 16-game start in program history.
"For us to become a complete team, they need to become complete players," he said last week, repeating what has almost become Maryland's mantra in a potentially memorable season.
Senior guard Rasheed Sulaimon said before practice Monday that the sacrifices players have made — particularly on the offensive end — are a good sign.
"It says we're focused on all the right things," Sulaimon said. "At the end of the day, when we're matched up against another team, all we try to do is win. Everybody had to make a certain amount of sacrifices to be on one team. I think everybody is committed to that, to do whatever it takes to win the game."
Just as they were last season, the Terps might be better collectively than individually. And given how talented Maryland is offensively, the team is playing some of its best collaborative basketball going into Tuesday night's game at Michigan (12-4, 2-1 Big Ten Conference).
Sophomore point guard Melo Trimble, who always has been more finisher than facilitator, continues to be a clutch shooter — no more so than on Saturday's game-winning 3-pointer at Wisconsin — while becoming a creative passer and more aggressive defender.
"Everyone knew I could score; that's my strength. For me to become a complete player, I had to work on things I'm not used to doing and need to get better at, and passing and defense are big parts of the game, too," said Trimble, who is averaging nearly six assists and more than a steal per game.
Sulaimon has been shooting about 50 percent from 3-point range for the season — by far the best mark of his career — and also set a career high with 10 assists in a game against UMES.
"I do think our guard play, Melo and Rasheed, they take what comes to them and try to make guys around them better," Turgeon said Monday.
Asked where he has made the biggest improvement this season, Sulaimon said: "It's things just like leadership. It's just being a vocal leader. If my teammates get down on themselves, pick them up. Motivating them, just trying to be the voice extension of the coach."
Junior forward Robert Carter Jr. and senior forward Jake Layman, who never have been known for their defensive prowess, combined to block six shots Saturday at Kohl Center while shutting down Nigel Hayes and Vitto Brown in the second half. Hayes scored just three of his team-high 17 points in the second half, while Brown finished with no points and no rebounds.
"Melo made a big-time shot for us, but I thought Robert's defense down the stretch was great, Jake was great defensively the whole game, and then we had one really great stretch in there" offensively, Turgeon said Monday.
Carter said his "biggest growth" this season has been on defense, particularly against smaller players such as Hayes. The 6-foot-9, 235-pound Carter said he takes pride on the defensive end.
"That's a part of my game I've been working on," said Carter, who tied a career high with four blocks to go along with 14 points and 11 rebounds Saturday, his first double double since transferring from Georgia Tech.
"Mark has done a really good job with both Carter and Layman defensively, getting them to where you can switch," said ESPN college basketball analyst Dan Dakich, who called the Terps' game Saturday. "They can move their feet and keep guys in front of them. That's not easy."
Junior center Damonte Dodd, whose defensive ability in the post is the main reason he is still starting ahead of freshman Diamond Stone, came out of a recent offensive funk with nine first-half points against the Badgers.
And Stone, whose ability to score was punctuated by a freshman school-record 39-point explosion against Penn State on Dec. 30, is showing signs of being an effective post defender, too, especially guarding ball screens.
Collectively, Maryland showed its versatility Saturday by scoring a season low in points — nearly 17 below the Terps' season average — and still winning a grind-it-out game against Wisconsin.
"It wasn't our best game, but we figured out a way to win it," Turgeon said. "We did what we had to do, disappointment with the way we played the last four minutes. … We'll learn from it, hopefully, the next time that happens."
The Terps have won games by going inside to Stone and Carter, getting good outside shooting from Trimble and Sulaimon and by being the top foul-shooting team in the Big Ten.
Maryland has an NCAA-best 15-1 record over the past two seasons in games decided by six points or fewer, which Turgeon attributes to a number of factors.
"Free-throw shooting, [having a player like] Melo, and I think we defend and rebound when the game is on the line as well as anybody," Turgeon said.
Maryland also has won games by simply shutting opponents down — as the Terps did in winning at Northwestern, which went 2-for-20 on 3-pointers — and might have to do against the Big Ten's most prolific 3-point-shooting team Tuesday.
"It's a fight every day, to get guys to play together, offensive and defensively, as any coach will tell you, to keep doing it," Turgeon said. "But so far we've been great."
Said Carter: "I think we'll continue to grow as a team, grow as a group and learn from each other. We're very talented on the offensive end; everybody knows that. We have to continue growing as a group, getting used to each other, and we'll be fine and become a great team."