Baltimore Sun reporter Don Markus previews Maryland's men's basketball game against Virginia and the key players to watch Wednesday night. (Kevin Richardson/BSMG)
Given what transpired over Mark Turgeon's first three seasons at Maryland, there was certainly pressure on this year's freshman class to quickly produce better results and quiet an increasingly frustrated fan base.
Seven games into the 2014-15 season, the Terps have seemingly been transformed from dysfunctional underachievers to a harmonious and dangerous team, largely based on the play of their four freshmen.
Going into Wednesday night's game against No. 7 Virginia (7-0) at Xfinity Center, which is part of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, No. 21 Maryland (7-0) is off to its best start in eight seasons and is ranked for the first time in five years.
Much of that has to do with the talent, toughness and togetherness of a freshman class that is living up to its top-10 national ranking and perhaps exceeding the expectations of everyone except of the man who convinced them to become Terps.
"They've played a huge part," Turgeon said before practice Tuesday. "I don't know if I'd say they've exceeded [my expectations]. ... We expected a lot out of them. And the great thing is that all four individually have so far to go to get better. It's exciting, but there's a lot of room for improvement there."
This freshman class could eventually help return the Terps to national prominence, much like the 1992 recruiting class — which included Duane Simpkins, Johnny Rhodes and Exree Hipp — did in becoming the foundation for Maryland's run of 11 straight NCAA tournament appearances and 14 in 17 years.
"We knew we're a key part of the team. We just wanted to fit in like we can," freshman point guard Melo Trimble said after Sunday's 95-77 win over VMI, in which the freshmen accounted for 50 points on 20-of-30 shooting, with 15 rebounds. "We're not trying to step ahead of ourselves. We just want to keep doing our thing."
While Trimble has made as big an impact as nearly any freshman in the country — leading the Terps in scoring (16.6) and taking over an even larger leadership role when senior forward Dez Wells broke his right wrist last week — his fellow first-year players have already made their own significant contributions.
In Maryland's biggest win this season, 6-foot-7 wing Jared Nickens came off the bench to score 15 points in a 72-63 upset of then-No. 13 Iowa State in the championship game of the CBE Hall of Fame Classic.
That tournament also marked the emergence of 7-1 center Michal Cekovsky of Slovakia as a player capable of disrupting an opposing team's offense while also showing the kind of offensive skills that brought assistant coach Dustin Clark to the Canary Islands last winter to recruit him.
After helping change the Iowa State game by forcing the Cyclones to shoot outside — he also grabbed eight rebounds and blocked two shots — Cekovsky followed it up with 10 points on 5-of-6 shooting, six rebounds and three blocks in 23 minutes against VMI.
"Checko's confident," Turgeon said. "You get confident, you become a little more aggressive."
And while 6-4 shooting guard Dion Wiley has not been as spectacular as Trimble, he is quickly disproving a reputation of a one-dimensional offensive player that followed him from high school.
Wiley's struggles so far from 3-point range, where he has missed 12 of 18, have been minimized by his ability to get to the basket and defend.
"He can do a lot of things off the bounce," Trimble after both he and Wiley scored 19 points against VMI, with 17 of Wiley's points coming in the second half. "Dion has one of the tightest handles [ballhandling skills] on the team. A lot of teams don't know that because he can shoot."
Wiley's defense has been the biggest revelation. After Trimble joked during the preseason that "I didn't even know Dion played defense," Wiley's emerging reputation for being a shutdown defender has led Turgeon to put him on the other team's top scorer at times.
Watching Maryland play Arizona State in the semifinals of the CBE Hall of Fame Classic on television — a game in which Trimble took just 11 shots from the field and finished with 31 points — Virginia coach Tony Bennett couldn't help but be impressed.
"The young guys can really do some things," Bennett said Monday. "You can see just by numbers and watching them play in stretches, [they're] very impressive."
Former Maryland star and current college basketball analyst Len Elmore knew that the Terps had upgraded in terms of maturity and on-court IQ from last season from the moment he saw them in Kansas City the day before the Arizona State game.
"I could look at them in warmups and in practice and see that," said Elmore, who worked the tournament for ESPN. "Those guys [the five players who transferred out of the program in the spring] were so about themselves it was ridiculous."
Trimble seems to be the opposite. Even when a reporter mentioned to him Tuesday about being named the Big Ten's Freshman of the Week and co-Player of the Week after he had been named the MVP of the CBE Hall of Fame Classic, the 6-3 guard seemed embarrassed about all the attention.
"I look at it, but I don't want to get too big-headed — ever," Trimble said. "I know that once I get big-headed, I just start to focus on the compliments I did get. I want to get more, and I want to keep winning."
From the moment they stepped on campus last June, this year's freshmen carried themselves with a quiet confidence that the older players, particularly the uber-confident Wells, appreciated. They were respectful of the upperclassmen, though not afraid to challenge them in practice.
"They have the right attitude that's combined with proper leadership, so they've approached things the right way and are being led the right way," said fifth-year senior guard Richaud Pack, a transfer from North Carolina A&T. "That just puts them in a really good place to succeed."
Said Turgeon: "From Day One you could see it was going to click when we started in June, that the personalities fit, the respect factor was there and I think the upperclassmen realize that these guys make them better. It really is a pretty good dynamic having a group of seniors that it's their last go-around and you have a bunch of young guys so excited to be a part of something."
NOTES: Turgeon said before practice Tuesday that he considers senior forward Evan Smotrycz "day-to-day" in terms of his availability for the Virginia game. Smotrycz tweaked his left ankle during the first half Sunday. It was his second game back after being sidelined since October with a broken bone in his left foot. "I'm preparing like he's not playing, like we have all season," Turgeon said. ... Cekovsky, who rolled his left ankle early in the second half Sunday but returned and played well, has "responded well" to treatment, Turgeon said.