Melo Trimble didn’t want this.
He didn’t want to return to school for his junior year. He didn’t want to put his professional career on hold for another 12 months. He didn’t want to return to College Park as the forgotten superstar in an era where three seasons in college makes you an elder statesmen that the general public believes is somewhere between overrated and not-all-that-good to begin with. He waited as long as he possibly could to announce his decision to return. He looked for any justifiable reason for him to keep his name in the draft.
There were none.
Melo was the 2015-16 Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year. He was a potential first round pick that opted to return to school to be the face of a team that was one of, if not the most talented teams in college basketball. He was supposed to be the hometown hero that returned a storied program to the pinnacle of the sport, to become a legend amongst the maniacal Maryland fan base, to never have to pay for a sandwich in College Park again.
Suffice to say, the year didn’t go as planned. The Terps under-performed throughout the regular season, managed just a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament and fell to No. 1 Kansas in the Sweet 16. The pieces that head coach Mark Turgeon had collected just didn’t seem to fit all that well together. The team lacked leadership. They lacked cohesion. There were too many players worried about how their performance would affect their professional future. They were soft.
Individually, Melo was just as bad. His scoring average dipped (16.2 points to 14.8 points), he could no longer hit threes (41.2% to 31.5%), he shot 58 fewer free throws and he spent the second half of the season in a dreadful slump he never truly seemed to shake.
It was bad.
Ask him and Turgeon will try and spin it. He’ll tell you that they won 27 games, that they went to the Sweet 16 and took a tough loss to the No. 1 team in the country, that the only possible way to live up to their preseason expectations was to win Big Ten titles en route to a national title. He’ll call it a “great season” over and over again.
And he’ll be wrong, both in his characterization of last season and in how he’s handling it this year.
He should keep reminding everyone just how disappointing the Terps were in 2015-16. He should want that to continue to be a talking point. He should want the the narrative around Maryland to be that the Terps couldn’t handle success and that Melo was the reason why.
Because the best thing for Mark Turgeon and Maryland is a pissed off Melo Trimble.
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The biggest issue that Melo Trimble had as a sophomore was the inability to tune out the noise.
His future wasn’t the only thing on his mind, but it’s hard not to think about what comes next when the end result will be, quite literally, your dream coming true. Every basketball player grows up dreaming of hearing their name called during the NBA Draft, of walking across that stage and shaking the commissioner’s hand and getting interviewed on national television. Melo wasn’t immune to that.
He also wasn’t immune to the detractors, to the negative narrative that started swirling around the Maryland program as an unimpressive start turned into doubts about just how good the team, and the team’s star point guard, actually was. Every bad performance gave way to being questioned by the talking heads on game broadcasts, criticisms on college basketball and NBA Draft websites, a sliding draft stock, a cauldron of hate on social media.
Melo let all that noise get to him, and it snowballed. He couldn’t shake a nagging hamstring injury, he lost his confidence and he just wasn’t having fun anymore.
“Too much expectations, too much pressure on myself, too much thinking about the NBA,” Trimble said. “I just forgot how to be a kid and have fun playing basketball.”
“I think I played well the first part of the season. Then I had a little area when I didn’t shoot he ball well and everyone blew it out of proportion.”
Trimble didn’t know how to handle it. He never had to deal with that kind of adversity or negativity before. He was a star at Bishop O’Connell High School, a very good basketball program that plays in the toughest conference in the D.C. area. He was a McDonald’s All-American as a senior, and as a freshman with the Terps, he was a hero that made clutch shot after clutch shot and led the Terps to win after win. Maryland was picked 10th in the league and finished all alone in second place, earning a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament before succumbing to West Virginia in the second round.
“He’s a kid,” Turgeon said. “As mature as he plays and acts, he’s still a kid. [Last year there] was a lot of pressure, but he’s much more equipped to handle it now from what he went through.”
“Juan Dixon used to tell me it’s good for a great player to have struggles at some point. They all have it. Melo had it. It’s going to make him a better player, a better person. It’s life. We all struggle. What the went through last year has made him much more complete.”
The biggest change that Turgeon has seen in his point guard’s game comes in the leadership department. Melo is naturally a quiet kid. He’s not the kind of player that is going to scream at a teammate who missed a defensive rotation or forgot how to run a set offensively. He’s not the guy in the locker room firing up his teammates with an impassioned pregame speech.
He’s not Draymond Green. He’s the lead-by-example type.
That worked when he was a freshman because Maryland had Dez Wells, a senior guard that had spent three years in the program and who was a powerful voice in the locker room. That was Wells’ team even if it was Melo who starred on the floor.
Partly because of all the new faces coming into the program and partly a result of the way those players fit together – both on the floor and off the floor – it just didn’t work last year, and Maryland paid the price.
“This year is different,” Melo said. “It’s my team. I’m the leader of this team. We’ve got a group of guys that want to get better and I think this group of guys respect the leader of the team this season.”
“The players, the attitudes. This team has the best attitude. I’ve got a bunch of guys that want to work. When you have those guys that want to work and that respect their leader, everything works out for itself.”
Turgeon will vouch for Melo’s growth.
“His message is clearer,” Turgeon said. “His voice isn’t cracking. It’s a lot of things. We all mature at different rates. Some guys are born leaders. Some guys become leaders.”
Melo still isn’t the loudest voice in the locker room – “Coach Turgeon is going to do all this yelling,” he says with a smile, adding that “when they come to me I’m pretty much their savior, helping them with things they don’t understand.” – but he has a confidence that comes with knowing that this team will go as far as he takes them, and that the rest of his team knows it as well.
The Terps do have some quality pieces. The freshmen are drawing rave reviews. Anthony Cowan, a top 40 point guard prospect, will allow Melo a chance to play off the ball while Kevin Heurter, as well as the now-healthy redshirt sophomore Dion Wiley, will give Maryland the kind of floor-spacers they lacked last season. Damonte Dodd and Michel Cevosky are back in the interior while a third freshman, Justin Jackson, as the kind of length, athleticism and skill-set to play as a small-ball four.
And it was that small-ball lineup that the Terps used to such effect during that 2014-15 season.
But the key is Melo.
It’s always going to be Melo.
And in a year where he’s finally learned how to take control of a team in a season where he is determined to prove his many doubters wrong, that is the best news that Maryland basketball could receive.