COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- It turns out that what some basketball fans and interested observers might deem “pressure,” the 2015 Maryland basketball team considers just good fun.
A consensus top-three pick in most major polls, the Terrapins are coming off a 28-7, second-in-the-Big-Ten and Round of 32 appearance in the NCAA Tournament, and there isn’t anyone paying attention that doesn’t think they’ll do better this season.
A lot better.
“We may glance at (the polls) but we don’t really pay a lot of attention,” said freshman center Diamond Stone, one of the reasons the Terps are chart-toppers. “We try to humble ourselves and just buy into coach (Mark) Turgeon’s process.”
Good answer for a freshman, oh, wait, sorry. Last year when he had to integrate four freshmen into major roles, Turgeon stopped using the term “freshman.” He just called them “New Guys” or “Young Guys.”
“He said we had to do so much so fast that he didn’t want us to think of ourselves as freshmen,” explained now-sophomore Dion Wiley. “Now we’ve got just one ‘New Guy.’”
That would be Stone, the lone scholarship freshman, a McDonald’s All-American that helped complete Turgeon’s Happy Meal of a team, along with other newcomers-if-not-new-guys Rasheed Sulaimon and Jaylen Brantley. Those two are slated for big roles, too on a team with big plans. Turgeon and his players laid it all out at the team’s 2015 Media Day Oct. 20 at Xfinity Center.
“People look at us and they see a lot of talent, which is definitely true,” said senior Jake Layman, the long forward on a lot of NBA GM’s short lists. “One thing people don’t know and haven’t seen yet is just how close this team is. Once we get out there and start playing, I think everybody will see how tight-knit this team is.”
The team got a jump on that tightness, fitting a couple of pieces in last year when they were sitting out – 6-9 redshirt junior Robert Carter, the transfer from Georgia Tech, and 6-9 freshman Ivan Bender, a late enrollee who also had most of his highlights in the weight room.
Between those two, returning big men Michal Cekovsky, Damonte Dodd and “The New Guy,” Maryland can bang with the biggest and best under the basket. And a tip of the licensed-apparel cap to Director of Basketball Performance (the artist formerly known as strength and conditioning coach) Kyle Tarp, who helped bulk these guys up or tone them up. Stone, who arrived in August at 270 pounds is down to 249 in less than two months, but what’s left is muscle.
Meanwhile, Cekovsky is down to 250 pounds and looks in the best basketball shape of his Terrapin tenure. “My rebounding has really been helped,” he said. “I have more confidence. I don’t hide anymore.”
Carter looks like he could bust cinderblocks with his biceps, and he is stepping into a huge role, just the way he likes it. “I’m a basketball fanatic and not being able to play helped me dive into the ins and outs of basketball and helped me change my body,” he said. “I feel like stepping on the court, I have a better perspective and I’ve got a better body.”
The 6-9, 235-pound Carter will need all those attributes. Turgeon hopes to play big, hey, he’s already running an NBA offense, and that means Carter looks like the big guy who may have to chase little guys defensively.
“Robert has a lot to his game – low-post scoring, he can shoot the ball from three, he has become a better dribbler and passer, he has changed his body – defensively we continue to work there,” said Turgeon. “If we stay big, Robert is going to be chasing some guards. That will be a challenge for him but he has really worked at it and he has gotten better.”
Turgeon lauded Carter’s work and leadership. In fact, Carter and Layman are the acknowledged leaders of the team with Suliamon making a move in that area, too. Dez Wells’ detractors, and there were some, might be surprised how much of a leader he was for last year’s team behind the scenes.
“Dez handled everything, on the floor, off the floor, everything,” said Turgeon. “A lot of stuff never got to me last year. Everybody knew it was Dez’s team. We’re really leaning on Jake and Robert, but Suliamon is a natural competitor and kind of gets it. Between the lines, he’s doing a lot of leading, a lot of talking. Off the floor, out of respect for Jake and Robert, he’s letting them handle it.”
Not that Sulaimon hasn’t already taken another top Terp – Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year Melo Trimble – under his wing, too, and begun teaching him the Jedi Master ways of defense and vocal leadership, maybe the only two areas Trimble had to improve on after a masterful New Guy campaign.
“I’m not very vocal, I’m working on it, but I think me leading by example, my teammates have picked up on it,” said Trimble. “Rasheed is very emotional and very loud and that’s something I want to take after. And I’m also learning more about defense from him."
Sulaimon set a high standard at media day, cooly fielding reporters’ questions and calmly offering up veteran insights. For instance, Sulaimon reaffirmed the reason he’s wearing Maryland red and white now is because of the longstanding relationship he had with Turgeon and assistant Dustin Clark, back to their Texas A&M days, and the “trust” he had with them.
“Everything else was a bonus,” he continued. “The great Maryland culture, the great Maryland tradition and the great group of guys we have here.”
And by the time Stone and Sulaimon signed on, expectations exploded for Maryland basketball last spring.
“Since all the expectations started coming in early April, our guys have been working really hard. We had a great spring, a great summer and fall, and the first 12 days of practice have really been good for us,” said Turgeon in his opening remarks. “It’s a very competitive group. Whenever we put the score up there and the time (on the scoreboard), they really get after it.”
Turgeon said he had “eight starters,” and then hedged later, having fun with media that tried to get him to go into more detail, offering it was maybe nine starters or maybe just seven.
Anyway he breaks it down, Maryland is loaded with depth and experience or amazing New Guy talent at every position.
“We were playing in the preseason before practice, and you just look out there and go, ‘Man, we’ve got a lot of players,’” recalled Wiley.
Wiley was typical of the work Turgeon was talking about this team putting in this offseason. He came in at 224 pounds last year, got down to 210 this summer and is now 214, but it’s a chiseled 214, a weight and newfound strength that he said makes him “much more explosive.”
So naturally, Wiley feels like he has to start and have a big role this year, right? Wrong. “Whatever Coach tells me I need to do, I’m going to do it, whether it’s 40 minutes, 20 minutes, 10 minutes, whatever.”
Sulaimon would have smiled if he had heard that answer. All the former New Guy guards – Wiley, Trimble and Jared Nickens -- returning mentioned him and the things they were learning from him about basketball at both ends, but particularly on defense. Sulaimon, who should plug right in at shooting guard and support Trimble off the ball, sees a bigger picture.
“Chemistry at any level is the hardest thing for any team, and especially for me since I wasn’t here all summer, finishing up my degree at Duke,” he said. “Since I got here, our chemistry off the court is already good and we’re working on our chemistry on the court. The thing I’ve been impressed with is that nobody has an ego. We’re all playing for the name on the front of the jersey.”
Turgeon talked about Brantley, the backup point guard that may have been the missing piece for a deeper run in last year’s tournament. He said the Odessa (Tx.) Community College transfer, who played AAU ball with Layman in Massachusetts, was one of the team’s best shooters but rarely ever shoots because he defers to his teammates so readily.
And that is the kind of thing making life easier for Turgeon these days. When asked about pressure, he was to the point: “We know we have a good team. The only pressure I feel is internal, trying to get the most out of my team. Really, that’s day to day, and some days are better than others.”
Compared to seasons past, the problems Turgeon faces this year – finding enough minutes for so many good players – is a piece of cake, not that Kyle Tarp is letting anyone in the program have any cake. Turgeon did say because of that depth and the October grind (“We’re just beating up on each other in practice right now,” Turgeon said.) he might not have his rotation fleshed out for a while.
Another question was how to keep the lid on problems within the team with this much talent and this many expectations.
“I think what we have to figure out is how to stay humble, but stay really competitive and expect to win and expect to do great things,” said Turgeon. “For an athlete that’s a fine line. We talk about it all the time. We have a lot of things built in to get those things done. It’s part of our ‘We Will’, to continue to be good people, but try to become a better basketball player and a better basketball team every day.”
And there was Stone, the polished gem of a low-post scorer, over and over answering questions with how he had to improve his defense. “It’s guarding elite players, this isn’t high school any more,” Stone said. “This is the Big Ten. Maryland has always been and always will be a top defensive program.”
Turgeon said the team should be a better defensive team this year (and that’s saying something since they led the Big Ten in defensive field goal percentage at .395) and are definitely on pace to be a much, much better rebounding team, which fuels everything. Rebounding ends a defensive possession and starts or continues an offensive one. With the shot clock dropping down, there’s even more of a premium on possessing the ball off the glass.
Turgeon also said he thought the Big Ten would be better overall: “We could have seven teams in the Top 25 at some point during the season, and eight, possibly nine teams in the NCAA Tournament depending on how things go in the non-conference schedule.”
The Terrapins catch most of the top Big Ten teams on the road this year and Maryland will “have to be a great road team if we want to be Big Ten champions.”
They do. Just another expectation.
Layman explained that pressure with the accuracy that he is known for: “Expectations don’t mean much. To be a winning team you have to take it one game at a time. If this team can take that mindset and focus on each practice like it’s our last, I think we’ll be successful."
The season opens Nov. 13 against Mount St. Mary’s and then Nov. 17, Maryland hosts Georgetown in a game you may have heard something about. There’s also a Nov. 6 exhibition with Southern New Hampshire. The conference schedule tips off Dec. 30 at home against Penn State.