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In dream season, Terps freshman Melo Trimble turning fantasy into reality

Sports writer Don Markus talks about what Maryland's freshman point guard Melo Trimble has done for the basketball program and what the future holds for one of the nation's top college player. (Kevin Richardson/BSMG)

COLLEGE PARK — As the video board at Xfinity Center flashed above the Maryland men's basketball team's darkened court, freshman Melo Trimble found himself looking up and thinking back to when he was a little kid in Prince George's County, rooting for the Terps.

It was a dream then for Trimble, a fantasy about the day he could wear the uniform of Juan Dixon and Steve Blake. Even now, as he watches his former heroes reappear overhead in moments from some of the program's glory years before games, Trimble goes back in time.

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"I see Steve Blake taking the ball from Jay Williams, and that just always gives me chills," said Trimble, sitting on a bench at practice Tuesday. "Not too many people talk about Maryland. I just see that video and I think to myself: 'There've been a lot of great teams, and I want us to be one of those teams.' "

Then the screen goes black and his likeness appears, the home crowd roaring for Maryland's newest star. A smile on his face, a bounce in his step, Trimble is the first player introduced. Someday, he'll likely be the last, a designation typically reserved for the most accomplished Terp.

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For now, Trimble is happy to let that honor belong to senior guard Dez Wells, who told his young teammate before the season that, as a point guard, he had to become one of Maryland's leaders.

Trimble has done more than anyone could have imagined. Going into Sunday's game against Northwestern (10-9, 1-5 Big Ten Conference), he has become one of the most celebrated freshmen in the country, leading the No. 13 Terps (17-3, 5-2) to their first national ranking in five years and the school's best 20-game start since 2001-02.

It is something Trimble seems at ease doing and, more important, something his older teammates have embraced. Richaud Pack, who joined the team with Trimble after transferring from North Carolina A&T, said Saturday that he was "impressed but not surprised" at what Trimble has accomplished so soon.

"I kind of expected it from what I saw," said Pack, a fifth-year senior who started alongside Trimble for the first two months of the season. "Just playing with him over the summer, working with him and seeing what he was capable of, I could see how good he was going to be."

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Out of his shell

Kim Trimble, who works in human resources for the federal government, said the oldest of her two children is a lot like her. In fact, one of the reasons she put her then-5-year-old son into a flag football league in Upper Marlboro was to help him get over his shyness.

"He's always been that quiet child. Sometimes, if you were to come in our house, if you didn't know he was there, you would think it was an empty house," Kim Trimble said. "He wasn't ripping and running. He's always been very reserved. I guess he gets it from me."

Kim Trimble said her son always has "had to prove himself," beginning in middle school, when a new eighth-grade basketball coach didn't believe her son was that good.

"I think, initially, he didn't think Melo was going to be that guy, until Melo started playing and the coach said: 'Wait a minute,' " his mother recalled.

In high school, Kim and Melo Trimble would get up at 4:30 a.m. to make the drive to Bishop O'Connell High in Arlington, Va., so that he could practice shooting with assistant coaches before school started.

Trimble could play, leading the Knights in scoring as a freshman after not even starting their first two games, but he "didn't want to speak," he recalled. "I didn't want to be wrong, I didn't want to be right, and people would disagree with me."

Under O'Connell coach Joe Wootten, the son of legendary former DeMatha coach Morgan Wootenn, Trimble transformed himself. He became the Washington Post's All-Met Player of the Year as a senior and the Terps' first McDonald's All-American since Mike Jones in 2003. He also learned to talk to himself.

"In my head … [I] say what I want because they" — coaches, opponents and referees — "can't hear it," he said with a smile. "Coach Joe told me to do that: 'If you're getting yelled at, just speak in your head and say what you want because they can't hear it and it will just go away.'"

When he arrived at Maryland in June for summer workouts, "I came in and a lot of my teammates and coaches trusted me. Especially coach [Mark] Turgeon had that confidence and said: 'Just be a leader.' "

Getting noticed

After playing tentatively at times in his first three games, Trimble took off.

First came the night against Arizona State, when Trimble scored a season-high 31 points on just 11 shots from the field in a 78-73 win.

Then came the night against Monmouth, Maryland's first game after Wells fractured his wrist. Trimble scored 24 points, making eight straight free throws in the last minute to secure a 61-56 victory.

"He's the one we want with the ball in his hands at the end of the game," junior forward Jake Layman said afterward.

As the Terps adjusted to playing without Wells and senior forward Evan Smotrycz (broken foot), Trimble became their unquestioned floor leader. Even after they returned in late December, and Layman grew into a steady double-figure scorer and voracious rebounder, Trimble became even more vital to Maryland's success.

"I'd have to say that he's the straw that stirs the drink, there's no question about it," Tom Izzo, Michigan State's Hall of Fame coach, said after Trimble scored 24 points, including 21 in the first half, in a 75-59 win over the Spartans on Jan. 17. "He's as good [a freshman point guard] as I've seen in a while."

As Maryland's national profile expanded — before losing Thursday at No. 23 Indiana, the Terps were mentioned by ESPN's Joe Lunardi as a possible No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament — Trimble has received the types of accolades that went to Maryland's last great freshman, Joe Smith, who was Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year and an honorable-mention All-American in 1993-94.

"I don't really like getting the attention," said Trimble, who is very much like Smith was in that way. "I'm just a team player. I love my team. If they get attention, I want to be part of that."

On Jan. 14, Trimble made the midseason cut for the John R. Wooden Award, given to the nation's top player, one of just five freshmen remaining on a list of 25. Three days later, after the blowout win over Michigan State, Trimble was trending on Twitter. His coach knew he didn't have to worry about the attention.

"He's a humble kid. He'll handle it the right way," Turgeon said that day. "He'll come to work. He expects to play that way. … Melo will be Melo. He'll just keep getting better."

A first for Turgeon

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His statistics are impressive — a team-best 15.8 points per game, plus 122 made and 139 attempted free throws, both second nationally — but what separates Trimble is his ability to make others better.

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"He's a different kind of point guard," college basketball analyst Dan Bonner says. "People talk about scoring point guards as if they don't pass. They talk about pass-first point guards, as if they don't try to score. He's somewhere in between — he's a playmaker. If they need a basket, he makes a play. If they need a pass, he makes that play. If they need him to guard somebody, he makes that play."

Northwestern coach Chris Collins, a former point guard and assistant at Duke, said what distinguishes Trimble and a few of the Big Ten's other top freshmen is their preternatural poise, a quality Collins has seen in Trimble since high school.

"He never seems rattled in any situation," Collins said during the league's weekly teleconference Monday. "He's really smart; he's really crafty. In games when he's not shooting well, he has the ability to get to the line [for] double-figure [attempts]. He's a special player. He has that 'it' factor about it. He doesn't look like a freshman out there. He looks like a veteran player who's done this for a long time."

It doesn't seem to surprise Turgeon, who in three years at Maryland went through a point guard who could shoot but did not like to pass (Terrell Stoglin), one who could pass but was a spotty shooter (Pe'Shon Howard), and one who could do a little of both but didn't play a lick of defense (Seth Allen).

"Melo's a unique young man," Turgeon said during the team's media day in October. "He kind of stays at that same pace the way he plays. He doesn't get too excited. He doesn't get up. He doesn't get down. He just moves on to the next play. He's been everything and more he's been advertised [as] at practice."

Said Bonner: "I get the distinct impression that this is the first time Mark is comfortable with his point guard."

As players, coach and point guard are opposites. Turgeon mirrored the fiery nature of his coach, Larry Brown, during his career at Kansas. Trimble doesn't show the passion he says he keeps inside.

"I've always been very calm and cool because my mom told me never to talk back and always just listen," Trimble said. "I had a lot of teammates that were really hotheaded and wouldn't listen, stuff like that, and they didn't get to where they wanted to be. I just needed to be myself, always listen to the coach and take the good with the bad."

Not that Trimble gets caught up in the hype.

"It's new to me because I've never really been talked about when I was coming up. I'd rather not be talked about. I'd rather just keep playing the game," he said. "I don't worry about being Player of the Year, all this or that; I just worry about winning. The reason I came to Maryland was to win and come to my dream school and hopefully keep getting better and make it to the next level."

As Izzo and others have suggested, Trimble might be good enough to leave for the NBA after one season. But Trimble seems happy at Maryland.

Earlier this season, he dyed his dark hair with a reddish tint when his teammates suggested he looks like New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. After a stepback 3-pointer before halftime against the Spartans that made Lourawls Nairn Jr. trip over his own feet, he low-fived fans sitting courtside.

"I just try to stay level-headed," he said. "Even though [against Michigan State last] Saturday, I had a good game and had a great play [hitting the 3-pointer before halftime] and stuff like that, I still think I have a lot more games left to prove myself. Maybe I am capable of going to the next level, but I'm all about just winning because I'm here now.

"I really want to do great things for this team because of the seniors, because of this time playing with them. I'm really emotional about it. Every time I think about it, I think I need to get in the gym and do what it takes to help this team win. I really don't think about the next level; I want to do something special with this team."

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