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Terps' Rasheed Sulaimon trying to regain chemistry with backcourt mate Melo Trimble

Rasheed Sulaimon reaches for a loose ball as Melo Trimble of the Maryland Terrapins looks on against the Purdue Boilermakers at Mackey Arena on February 27, 2016 in West Lafayette, Indiana.
Rasheed Sulaimon reaches for a loose ball as Melo Trimble of the Maryland Terrapins looks on against the Purdue Boilermakers at Mackey Arena on February 27, 2016 in West Lafayette, Indiana. (Michael Hickey / Getty Images)

COLLEGE PARK — For the first three months of the season, Maryland senior guard Rasheed Sulaimon seemed to be the perfect complement to his new backcourt partner, sophomore star Melo Trimble.

Like an old married couple who finished each other sentences, Sulaimon and Trimble appeared to be even more in sync than Trimble was as a freshman last season with senior Dez Wells.

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Their pairing was a major reason for the Terps winning 15 of their first 16 games.

When Trimble scored, Sulaimon passed.

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When Sulaimon scored, Trimble passed.

Trimble credited Sulaimon with improving his defense. The Duke transfer credited Trimble for so readily accepting him and encouraging him to share the scoring load.

Even in the team's only loss, at North Carolina in early December, Trimble and Sulaimon carried Maryland by combining for 41 points and 15 assists.

It led Maryland coach Mark Turgeon to say on numerous occasions that the Terps had "the best backcourt in the country." Except for Oklahoma, that might have been true at the time.

That is clearly not the case now as Maryland (24-7) begins the Big Ten Conference tournament Friday in Indianapolis in the midst of a slump that saw the now-No. 18 Terps lose four of their last six regular-season games.

Something happened over the past month that changed their chemistry and the team's fortunes, and it can be tied directly to the on-court relationship between Trimble and Sulaimon

Trimble's shooting slump while he was playing with an injured hamstring for more than a month led to what Sulaimon called "an adjustment period" for the 6-foot-4 shooting guard and others who had to pick up the slack.

"Now that everyone's healthy, we're trying to adjust back," Sulaimon said Wednesday before practice. "We got used to playing a certain style and now that everyone's healthy we have to play at another style to be successful. We're in the process of doing that."

Though Sulaimon said that "everyone's optimistic, everyone's in good spirits," there have been times recently when it looks like there is still a chemistry issue.

It was never more evident than in Sunday's 80-62 loss at Indiana.

At one point, Sulaimon became so frustrated with Trimble not passing him the ball that he jumped in the air, contorted his face and flailed his arms like a grade-schooler throwing a tantrum when he didn't get his turn on the swing.

It was a rare example of Sulaimon letting his emotions blow up in a negative way, something he had done on more than one occasion at Duke and might have played a part in his well-documented dismissal by legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski last January.

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Sulaimon chuckled when the incident at Assembly Hall was mentioned Wednesday.

"It was out of my character," Sulaimon said. "As a senior I have to be more poised, be sort of the concrete rock for my team. It was a little slippage there.

"Reflecting on it, I thought I should have handled things differently, but everyone's good now. I moved forward, I learned from it and going forward, I'll be that guy my teammates need me to be."

Trimble said that there are no chemistry issues between he and Sulaimon.

"Just trying to get back to where we were," Trimble said Wednesday. "We've had a whole week of practice. I think we're starting to get that chemistry back"

Asked Monday if he thought Trimble's injury impacted the chemistry he had with Sulaimon, Turgeon said on a Big Ten coaches' teleconference, "[Against Indiana] neither one of them had their better games, but the chemistry is still there."

"It was a tough environment [at Assembly Hall] and they [Indiana] did a good job on us," the coach continued. "We've just got to continue to believe in each other and feed off each other. I don't see that changing. Hopefully that bond will just get stronger as we head into the postseason."

Statistics suggest that the two guards have struggled recently with their roles.

During a recent four-game stretch in the Big Ten when Trimble went 38-for-48 from the field, including 2-for-14 on 3-pointers, Sulaimon became Maryland's most consistent scoring threat.

Sulaimon went 23-for-47, including 8-for-15 on 3-pointers. He also made 25 of 30 free throws. Sulaimon had a career-high 28 points in the team's disastrous loss at Minnesota on Feb. 18.

Since Trimble showed signs of breaking out the slump — averaging 18 points over the past three games — Sulaimon's productivity has slowed. He has gone 5-for-21, including 2-for-11 on 3-pointers, bringing his team-leading 3-point percentage down to 44.1 percent. Sulaimon has also become less aggressive going to the basket with only four free throws, none in the last two games.

Except for the nine assists he had in Maryland's 81-55 win last week over Illinois, his contribution to the team's offense seems to have been minimized by Trimble's resurgence.

"During a season, a lot of different things can happen," Sulaimon said. "There was a little spurt there when Melo did get a little injured. I'm not sure how much that affected his play, but definitely he wasn't 100 percent. That increased my role and other people's roles as well."

Said Trimble: "He had to play a much bigger role than he had when I was healthy. He's had to be more aggressive and he had to look for his shot more, which is something we always want Rasheed to do when things are breaking down. Rasheed really picked up the slack when I wasn't playing to my full potential."

Turgeon and the Terps are counting on Sulaimon to be an important piece of their postseason success.

"What I'm hoping for is consistency, just really being solid defensively and continue being a great leader," Turgeon said. "Sheed gets it, he tends to always say the right things in team meetings and different things that we're doing. He had some success in the postseason at Duke, an Elite Eight run as a freshman. Just his experience will be big for us."

During his first two seasons at Duke, Sulaimon was one of the Blue Devils' most productive players in both the ACC tournament and the NCAA tournament. In nine postseason games, he scored in double figures six times, averaging better than 13 points per game.

As a freshman, Sulaimon scored 16 points in an opening-round loss to the Terps in the ACC tournament, then added 21 points in a third-round NCAA win over Creighton and 16 points in a Sweet 16 win over Michigan State. As a sophomore, Sulaimon scored 20 points when the third-seeded Blue Devils were upset by No. 14 seed Mercer in their opening game. As a junior, Sulaimon watched the Blue Devils win the national championship after being the first Duke player dismissed.

On Wednesday, Sulaimon celebrated his 22nd birthday. As Sulaimon spoke to reporters before practice, Trimble and senior forward Jake Layman held up signs that read "Happy Birthday" and "Rasheed."

"It's kind of hard when it's in the midst of all the madness, everyone's trying to focus," Sulaimon said. "I'm blessed to see a 22nd year on this earth. Everything I've been through, especially in the last couple of years, I'm happy I lived through it and I'm glad to be here right now."

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In retrospect, it could not have worked out better for Sulaimon. Once considered a potential first-round draft pick after his freshman year, Sulaimon had to rebuild his game, his image and his confidence with the Terps.

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Sulaimon seems to have succeeded on all counts, and pro scouts have talked about his versatility. He has gone from being the "new guy in their locker room" to one of the team leaders who could play a critical role in Maryland's postseason journey.

"It was a point of uncertainty, especially in the beginning," he said. "I had a lot on my plate, a lot of things I was thinking through individually, and you just wanted everything to work. … I trusted the coaches, and that was one of the main reasons why I came here, that things would eventually work out. I think it was a perfect marriage. Hopefully we can continue this high road and finish out the year strong."

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