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Clarksville's Varun Ram emerges as 'pretty important' piece for Maryland, surprising even himself

Maryland center Diamond Stone, left, and guard Varun Ram (21) battle for the ball against Ohio State center Daniel Giddens, center, during the first half, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016, in College Park.
Maryland center Diamond Stone, left, and guard Varun Ram (21) battle for the ball against Ohio State center Daniel Giddens, center, during the first half, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016, in College Park. (Nick Wass / Associated Press)

COLLEGE PARK — By now, Varun Ram should have been in his first — or maybe second — year of medical school, following in the footsteps of his older sister, Anita, and his parents, both of whom are doctors. By now, Ram should have been talking of his basketball career in the past tense.

Except that Ram, who came to Maryland in 2012 as a walk-on after starting his career the year before at Division III Trininty (Conn.), is the Peter Pan of men's college basketball. The 5-foot-9 point guard from Clarksville doesn't want to grow up.

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Now seven months after deciding to use his final year of eligibility after graduating with a double major in neurobiology and physiology, as well as a near-perfect GPA, Ram suddenly finds himself with a more defined role than in any of his first three seasons with the Terps.

Entering Tuesday's game against Northwestern (15-4, 3-3 Big Ten Conference) at Xfinity Center, Ram has become a rotation player for No. 7 Maryland (16-2, 5-1) after playing 12 minutes in Tuesday's 70-67 loss at Michigan and 14 minutes in Saturday's 100-65 victory over Ohio State.

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"I did learn a lot about our team at Michigan. I learned Varun's pretty important to us, and he can really help us," Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said Saturday. "He takes more pressure off Melo [Trimble]. Rasheed [Sulaimon] goes out, and you still have a really good defender on the floor."

Ram said Turgeon's decision to use him in the regular rotation, ahead of 5-11 sophomore Jaylen Brantley, came as "a little bit of a surprise" to a player who had played a total of 38 minutes in Maryland's first 16 games, with 16 coming in a rout of Rutgers.

"I never really expect that, just coming in as a walk-on. I had zero reputation. I was just happy to have a jersey," he said Saturday. "I've been really fortunate for Coach Turgeon to have the confidence in me. I just try to do everything in my power to make guys in front of me better. Hopefully, I'm more than prepared to do whatever Coach needs me to do."

Inserted into the game against the Wolverines when Trimble got into early foul trouble, Ram helped the Terps shore up their defense and close a 13-point deficit in the second half. Against the Buckeyes, Ram also showed his ability to penetrate and find shooters, as well as knock down an occasional 3-pointer.

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But it's Ram's defense that has him in the rotation.

"He never gives up," said Sulaimon, perhaps Maryland's best on-ball defender. "You might think you beat him, and before you know, he's right back on top of you. It's just that constant pressure. He'll wear you out over the course of the game."

While many of his teammates were long accustomed to Ram's defensive capabilities — they all remember him stripping the ball from a Valparaiso shooter before a potential tying 3-pointer during the last possession of Maryland's lone NCAA tournament win last season — Sulaimon has gained a fast appreciation of Ram.

"He's another spark off the bench. He's like an Energizer Bunny," Sulaimon said. "Whether he's been on the bench for a minute or 39 minutes, that minute he's going to be in, he's going pick you up full court, he's going to zigzag you, he's going to give you his all. His energy is infectious. He gives us a spark for perimeter defense. Just his presence and his will and his energy is uplifting to the entire team."

Trimble understands how difficult it is for opposing guards to play against Ram, as he himself has learned during practice in his two seasons at Maryland.

"I don't think they really notice how much of a really good defensive player he is until they're out there with him," Trimble said. "I think he's a key to our team."

Trimble said he particularly enjoyed watching Ram bury a corner 3-pointer in the second half against the Buckeyes.

"It felt good. It felt like I shot it," Trimble said. "I always want Varun to score because he plays great defense. Once you do great on defense, you're supposed to be rewarded on offense."

Ram, whose outside shooting has been a weakness since his days at River Hill, said he has to block out the crowd's encouragement to shoot and instead make the best play.

"The only reason I want to shoot is so guys are not double-teaming Rasheed, double-teaming Diamond [Stone], and just to respect me, so the other guys do what they do well," Ram said.

Ram, whose only other stretch as a rotation player came when former guard Seth Allen was injured two years ago, figured his career was over last spring, a few weeks after that play in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Then, suddenly, one afternoon in early May, Ram announced he would put off medical school and play as a graduate student.

"I kept putting off the decision until the end," he said. "I wasn't sure what I was going to do. In hindsight, this was the best decision I ever made. Why not? People treat years of eligibility like gold. Here I was, I had a year of eligibility — why even think twice?"

Ram said his decision came after hearing encouragement from relatives and friends who already had graduated college and were working.

"They were like, 'Dude, this is what we dream about. You have the opportunity to be in college for one more year and play on a great team. Why are you even thinking twice about it?' " Ram recalled.

"After hearing that, it was like, 'Why not?' I'm always thinking [about] the future. I don't want to set back my career in terms of getting into the work force a year later than the competition."

Ram said his parents, who never really understood his passion for basketball growing up in Howard County, were happy to hear he would go to graduate school and earn a master's in supply chain management while playing more basketball.

"They just want me to be happy," he said. "They don't really know basketball as well. Most importantly, what really sold them was that I was going to get a master's in one year, and it was like, 'You want to play one more year? I guess you can.' They were more happy about the academic part."

There is only one big decision left for Ram. It will happen when Maryland plays Illinois on March 3 in likely the last home game of the season and his career. The idea of another Senior Day intrigues him.

"I would love to," Ram said. "Coach keeps teasing me, 'Varun, you're not getting two Senior Days. If you do, you're bringing your big poster plaque [given to the senior players and managers] to the game.'

"I would love to do Senior Day again. That would put me in a very elite group of college players that had two Senior Days over the course of their career. I would love to have a record like that."

tiwtter.com/sportsprof56

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