Expectations don’t get much higher than this.
The preseason assumption is that Maryland will be one of the teams playing in the Final Four when March turns to April and college basketball’s champion is crowned.
Last season’s Big Ten debut took many by surprise, as the Terps finished second — behind only national runner-up Wisconsin — and racked up 28 wins, the second-highest win total in program history, a total eclipsed only by the national-championship-winning team of 2002.
Mark Turgeon’s team boasted some of the best players in the conference, in the country. Two of those players, Melo Trimble and Jake Layman, opted to return and are joined by much-hyped freshman Diamond Stone and Duke grad transfer Rasheed Sulaimon.
Expectations are gigantic. And this team knows it.
“That’s why you come to Maryland. You want to be looked at that way,” Turgeon said earlier this month during Big Ten media day. “Now this year, it’s kind of all come together. Not every team that we’re going to have is going to be this talented, obviously. We can’t control expectations, we can just embrace them. That’s all we can do. We’re not out saying we’re going to go to a Final Four, win a national championship, but everybody’s saying it for us. We have the talent. We have Final Four talent. I think we have national-championship talent. Now whether we win one game in the NCAA tournament or even get there remains to be seen. But that’s the challenge of it, that’s the fun part.
“I said our guys are on a mission. They’re on a mission to be really good, and I’ve just got to make sure that we stay even keeled. We’ve got an unbelievably tough schedule. Our league road schedule is brutal. So what we’re going to go through between now and that time is going to prepare us to be one of the better teams in the country.”
The Big Ten doesn’t do official preseason projections anymore, but that doesn’t mean that media members haven’t made their own prognostications. Those predictions almost all have Maryland finishing the season as the league champ.
The Big Ten does still name a preseason player of the year. This year, it’s Trimble.
Last season, Trimble was fantastic as a freshman, narrowly missing out on conference Freshman of the Year honors to Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell. Trimble led the Terps in scoring, averaging 16.2 points per game, good for seventh in the Big Ten. He led the league in free-throw percentage and ranked eighth in 3-point percentage, 10th in minutes played and 11th in assist-to-turnover ratio.
Trimble wowed with his ability to get into the lane and get to the basket and get to the free-throw line. But he also displayed a terrific 3-point shot, splashing home 61 3-points, 41.2 percent of the shots he took from deep.
This season, Turgeon and Trimble’s teammates are warning the rest of the conference that Trimble’s going to be an even better player. That’s a scary thought if Maryland’s on your schedule.
“He’s worked hard on his shot, even for a guy who shot really well from 3 last year and made a lot of big 3s. We’ve added a little arc to his shot, got his rotation a little bit better than it was last year,” Turgeon said. “Melo’s a terrific player. Last year Melo got away with some things because he couldn’t foul. If he fouled, we had no chance. So I think you’ll see a better defender this year. I think you’ll see a better leader, and I think you’ll see a better floor general. Last year he had to score for us, he had to take tough shots. This year, he’ll still score for us, but he’s not going to have to do what he did for us last year. We’ve got too many good players around him.”
“I have confidence in him that he’ll really show how much he improved this year in things like playmaking,” Layman said. “Everybody knows he can score the ball, but his passing, his playmaking is something he really focused on this summer.”
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But as good as Trimble is, his supporting cast is just as impressive as any in the conference and as any in the country.
Layman was a couple fractions of a point per game away from being a top-20 scorer and rebounder in the Big Ten last season, and he can also score the ball with the best of them.
Stone was ranked the No. 6 player in the Class of 2015, per Rivals. He’s 6-foot-11 and is slimming down, too, per Turgeon, who said Stone lost 22 pounds since arriving on campus over the summer. And that ranking should illustrate that he’s the kind of player who can make an instant impact for this team.
“He's changed his body. He's lost a bunch of weight. He's done that,” Turgeon said. “How good can he be? I think offensively he's already there. He's got a great feel. Right-, left-hand hooks. He can shoot to 15 feet, tremendous passer. And has a great feel for the game. The way we run our offense, our big guys have the feel. So he has that. Like most young guys coming into the college ranks, defensively, he's going to have to really improve. And that's just going to be a process for us. But he's a talent, and he's going to help us win a lot of games.”
And there’s Sulaimon, who with defensive intensity and a winning experience — being with Duke has got to be good for something, right? — Turgeon also thinks can make this team even better than it was last season.
“We’re on a mission, and our guys felt like we needed another piece to get there,” Turgeon said. “Rasheed gives us something we didn’t have, a great perimeter defender, a great on-ball defender. We didn’t have that. We needed it. … Our team wants to do great things this year, so we felt like we needed Rasheed to do it.”
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Then there are other important pieces like Jared Nickens and Dion Wiley and Robert Carter and Damonte Dodd and Jaylen Brantley. The whole thing adds up to one of the most impressive rosters in college basketball.
Hence the expectations.
Will Maryland be one of the teams playing for a national championship come spring? Like Turgeon said, it remains to be seen. But after seeing what the Terps could do last season, when they looked as impressive as any team in the conference and cracked the top 10 in the AP rankings during the season, a markedly better version of that team would certainly seem to be one of the nation’s best.
Now it’s time to live up the hype.
“It’ll be tough,” Trimble said. “A lot of people are talking about us, they say we’re going to do really good. I think a lot of teams would disagree with that. How we worked over the summer and in the fall, I think we can live up to the expectations. As long as we worry about the team and the process, we don’t have to worry about what people are saying on the outside.
“Everyone wants to get to the national championship game. In order to get there, we just have to keep working and worry about the process.”