Expectations in College Park remained high a year after the Maryland men’s basketball team appeared in its first Sweet 16 since 2003.
The Terps opened the season No. 25 in the AP Poll and four spots higher in the USA Today Coaches Poll. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had coach Mark Turgeon’s team as one of the nine seeds in his first edition of Bracketology. With guard Melo Trimble leading the charge, this team appears to have the pieces to make its third straight NCAA tournament.
But amidst the hype was the fact that Maryland lost four starters from last year’s group, and it showed in the Terps’ 62-56 win over American in their season opener. The 38-percent shooting performance and 18 turnovers showed the Terps, filled with newcomers, are a “work in progress,” a sentiment Turgeon referenced at Big Ten media day in mid-October.
And for the sixth-year coach, that’s just fine.
“Just because people got us ranked or this and that, we don’t know who we are,” Turgeon said. “American’s a good team that played well tonight, was extremely well-coached, and it’s OK. You’re not going to beat everybody by 20. It’s OK. I just get the guys to realize it’s OK.”
Maryland’s mediocre play put itself in a four-point hole with less than eight minutes to go, so it turned to Trimble, its All-Big Ten performer and the team’s go-to scorer.
Trimble responded with back-to-back layups to tie the contest. He missed a 3-pointer from the corner on the next possession, but that sequence spoke to the trust he said Turgeon and his teammates have in him, especially late in games.
After leading the team in scoring the past two seasons, Trimble led all scorers Friday with 22 points on 9-of-19 shooting.
“It knew it was time to take over and lead the team to a win,” Trimble said. “Not only with points but my overall leadership out there.”
Forward L.G. Gill spoke to Trimble’s ability to lead by example but said the junior guard was more vocal in the later stages of Friday’s contest. With the Terps offense struggling, Trimble encouraged his team to make defensive stops. He specially talked about guarding American behind the arc, as the Eagles made eight threes compared to Maryland’s four, and emphasized rebounding as well.
With 3 minutes and 30 seconds to play, freshman forward Justin Jackson grabbed his seventh rebounds of the night before leaving the ball for Trimble in the backcourt. Late the shot clock, American doubled Gill as he cut towards the foul line, leaving forward Kevin Huerter open on the left wing. The soft-spoken freshman clapped twice to get the attention of Trimble, who found his younger teammate for a long ball that extended the Terps’ lead to six.
It was one of the bright moments in a contest not many expected to be this close.
“That kind of gave us separation,” Turgeon said, “and kind of helped our guys kind of take a deep breathe and relax a little bit.”
After the game, Turgeon made sure to mention to his players the unimportance of margin of victory, especially early in the season. He brought up last year’s Wisconsin team, which suffered a two-point loss to Western Illinois in its home opener. The Badgers went on to win 22 games, hand the then No. 2-Terps a 13-point loss in College Park and advance to the Sweet 16.
The Terps didn’t have to endure the sting of a surprising upset Friday night, but Turgeon said the narrow win would provide valuable lessons as this young team moves forward.
“In the end we won, it’s OK to have a tough game,” Turgeon said. “We’re going to learn a lot more from it, and we’re going to be a better team because it was a close game, and we’re not going to get caught up on ourselves.”