COLLEGE PARK, Maryland — For a team with legitimate national title aspirations and a shot to win the Big Ten regular season title, it may surprise folks that haven’t been paying attention that Maryland was a No. 3 seed in the latest NBCSports.com bracket projection.
And prior to Thursday night, there were projections that slotted the Terps as a No. 4 or No. 5 seed.
That’s what happens when it’s January 28th and your best win is over … a disappointing UConn team? A Georgetown team that lost to Radford, UNC Asheville and Monmouth? The worst Wisconsin team in more than 15 years? Believe it or not, their best RPI win as No. 3 Iowa rolled into town was against Princeton, who was slotted in at 60th.
And that is what made this result so important, as the No. 8 Terps knocked off the Hawkeyes on Thursday night, 70-64, giving them their first marquee win of the season against what may be the last elite opponent they play before March. The Terps really don’t have that many more opportunities for quality wins left on their schedule. They get Purdue twice. They play at Indiana. There’s a game against Michigan and the Big Ten tournament. That’s about it.
So this win in and of itself is key for seeding if nothing else, regardless of whether or not head coach Mark Turgeon believes it.
“It’s the first [game against a ranked opponent] at home,” Turgeon said. “It’s hard on the road against ranked opponents. It kind of made me mad when people were talking that way.”
Turgeon will have less reason to be mad tonight, but the fact of the matter here is that the win itself matters far less than the manner in which the Terps landed this win.
They did it without Melo Trimble.
Not without him without him. He played. He was on the floor for his usual 35 minutes. He just was more or less a non-factor.
Trimble, in case you’ve been sleeping under a football-shaped log for the last two months, is Maryland’s star. He’s the guy that hit the game-winning three at Wisconsin, the guy that has found his name somewhere near the top of every National Player of the Year list that you should be paying attention. He’s been dubbed by your’s truly as the best Big Shot Maker in college basketball, and he is the biggest reason that the Terps are now 17-2 in games decided by six points or less in his two seasons in College Park.
And on Thursday night, Melo finished with 11 points and three assists, shooting just 2-for-7 from the floor and, perhaps most surprisingly, getting to the free throw line exactly zero times before there were 17.4 seconds left on the clock. Five of his 11 points came in those final 17.4 seconds when the game was essentially decided. He didn’t score in the second until those free throws and took just three shots in the final 20 minutes.
Head coach Mark Turgeon didn’t even put the rock in Trimble’s hand on the biggest possession of the game. He used him as a decoy, sliding him on the weak side of the floor to draw the help defender as Jake Layman floated a lob pass over a fronting post defender for a Diamond Stone layup that made it 64-60 with a little more than a minute left.
Rasheed Sulaimon and Robert Carter Jr. both finished with 17 points and the Terps left the Xfinity Center with the 70-64 win.
And therein lies the most confounding thing about this Maryland team.
On paper, they’re may be the most talented team in the country, and I don’t say that lightly. Trimble is an all-american, and when Sulaimon is playing well, he gives the Terps what may be the best back court in college basketball. Diamond Stone is a soon-to-be lottery pick, Jake Layman could end up getting drafted and Robert Carter Jr. may actually be the team’s most well-rounded player.
“It’s really impressive when you look at the talent level. The size, the versatility, I think that’s what makes Maryland so tough,” Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery said. “Carter’s a handful, Stone is so good. Sulaimon and Trimble are so quick off the dribble, it’s hard to contain them.”
“We know what we have and we know what our potential could be,” Sulaimon said.
Why, then, is this team so inconsistent? Nine days earlier, in the same building that the Terps beat the hottest team in college basketball, the Terps were taken to overtime by Northwestern. They needed to come back from down 13 points with seven minutes left to beat Penn State right here in College Park. It’s been a consistent thing this year. They struggled with Rider early in the year. They struggled with Illinois State.
And the answer may actually be their savior.
Trimble is one of the five best point guards in college basketball. I’m not sure there is anyone in the country that would tell you otherwise. But the knock on Trimble is that he can be too ball-dominant at times. When the offense gets bogged, often times it turns into — or it is the direct result off — The Melo Show. The ball sticks in his hands. He dribbles out the clock, waiting for a chance to attack in isolation or a ball-screen action.
That was just fine last year, when Trimble’s supporting cast wasn’t as good as this year’s squad.
But now he may be sharing the court with four other NBA players.
When the ball moves, it gets other guys involved. Sulaimon got into a rhythm shooting the ball early and that opened up lanes for him to penetrate. “He does such a good job of finishing, especially going to his right, but he’s a tough guard because he can shoot it too,” Iowa point guard Mike Gesell said. “He’s very good for that team. He really got it going tonight.”
Iowa’s inability to guard Sulaimon and Trimble in man-to-man forced them into their 2-3 zone, which Carter feasted on. “He went to work in there,” McCaffery said.
The key was that they weren’t just finishing off plays. That duo finished with 22 shot attempts and nine assists. They weren’t just involved in the offense. They were creating it.
That’s what it’s going to take for Maryland to reach their ceiling.
And when they do, they have the pieces needed to beat anyone in the country, to win a national title. Tonight was evidence of that.
“We beat a really good basketball team tonight,” Turgeon said. “They are probably one of, if not the best team, right now, in college basketball. And we were able to beat them.”
And doing so with Trimble playing a minimal role down the stretch to boot.
“That’s a good sign for us.”