COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Maryland point guard Melo Trimble is known as a fast talker, so his interviews typically only last a couple minutes since he fires off answers faster than he can convert a transition layup.
But at the very end of his required media session Dec. 29, the simplest of inquiries gave the typically loose-lipped Trimble some trouble.
“What,” a reporter wanted to know, “was your best Christmas present?”
After a pregnant pause, followed by a wry grin, Trimble opted for the brown-noser response:
Trimble was kidding -- he let on his X-Box One took the cake -- but it’s fairly obvious the point guard, and his teammates for that matter, have enjoyed most of their Xfinity Center classroom sessions. Even when they’re held on December 25.
Fact is, practice is always easier when you’re winning, and it becomes even more palatable when you’re team’s gelling. Witness: The Terps are 11-1, they share the ball to the tune of almost 16 assists per game, they have five players averaging in double figures, and they rank third in the country with a 53.3 percent field-goal percentage. If that’s not a sign of a team that likes being around each other . . .
“Everyone on this team is very humble,” shooting guard Rasheed Sulaimon said. “No one is above anyone else. We do what ‘s best for the team.”
Naturally, it starts up top -- with the man running the show. The sophomore All-American Trimble has continued to progress after a stellar freshman campaign. Not only is he leading the team in scoring at 14.8 points per game (shooting at a 53-percent rate, to boot), but he’s become one of the most proficient passers around, his court vision and feel vastly improved.
Trimble ranks among the top-30 dime droppers in the country at 5.8 a night, and while he still turns the ball over a fair amount, many of the latter are of the “aggressive” (read: excusable) variety.
Maryland’s last game against Marshall served as a microcosm of Trimble’s season thus far. He started out gangbusters, draining triples and finishing at the rim -- his forte of sorts. But after tallying 13 points, Trimble put aside his trigger finger as the Terps built a commanding lead. Instead, he began threading the needle and moving the ball around the perimeter, resulting in a game-high seven assists. On top of that, he recorded five rebounds, giving the floor general a complete 13, 5 and 5 line.
“It’s been pretty amazing what Melo is doing,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “He hits his first couple shots [against Marshall], and you’re thinking he’s going to get 20, 25 [points]. But all of a sudden he stops shooting and starts facilitating and he has seven assists. I pulled him out and with seven [minutes] to go I said, ‘Do you want to go back in?’ And he said, ‘Not really, just let the other guys play.’ It shows you he’s all about the team.
“But I think he wants to prove to everybody he’s not just a scorer. He reads the websites and people say he’s a two-guard playing the point, and he’s not. He’s a great point guard. It’s good to see, and I’m happy for him. But he knows when he has to turn it on offensively for us late in games for us to be successful. He just hasn’t had to do it as much as last year.”
Trimble agreed with his coach, letting on he knew he didn’t have to attack the rim with reckless abandon against Marshall.
“When we play teams like that everyone is going to get involved. I didn’t need to score a lot,” Trimble said. “But games the team needs me to score a lot, I’m going to do it.”
Trimble’s mentality is part natural maturation after a year traversing through the college basketball meat grinder. But it’s also the result of a new veteran sidekick, who has taught the budding point guard a thing or two.
The fifth-year Rasheed Sulaimon’s impact extends beyond the numbers. Yes, he’s putting up 11 points, dishing out four assists and grabbing three boards a game, but his presence alone -- let’s all it a “calming presence” -- has served the squad well. Trimble in particular.
“Sheed’s helped Melo in a lot of ways – communication, seeing the floor. He’s just constantly talking to him, and they do feed off each other,” Turgeon said. “[The chemistry] came together a lot quicker than I anticipated. … And I think Rasheed being around has taken a lot of pressure off of Melo.”
Said Trimble: “Rasheed is a great leader, a great passer, and I’m starting to learn from him a lot -- how to pass the ball and be a leader on and off the court. He tells me to be vocal. And he’s a great guy and he gives me great confidence. You can see it throughout the game, we’re laughing and just giving each other confidence. I think we complement each other well.”
Indeed, it’s a symbiotic relationship. Sulaimon may be the fifth year, readily willing to impart his knowledge, but he said he’s learned just as much from Trimble as the point guard’s taken from him.
“Just [Trimble’s] will to win. In big-time games he shows up. For a sophomore, bright lights are on and everyone in the country is watching you. In those moments, he actually elevates his game,” said Sulaimon, who commented that Trimble’s name, ‘Melo,’ perfectly suits his low-key personality. “For such a young guy, for him to step up and play tremendously in a couple big games … it’s really caught my eye and impressed me to how good he is.
“But we realize with the type of team we have, we have a chance to do something special here. We’re going to do our best to lead this team from the guard position. He feeds off of me and I feed off of him.”
The result? Well, the aforementioned numbers speak for themselves. The Terps are passing the ball better than they ever have during Mark Turgeon’s tenure in College Park.
Trimble’s and Sulaimon’s facilitating prowess has rubbed off on the rest of the squad too. The wings are readily rotating the ball, and the bigs are working it inside-out (aside from a few notable mishaps).
“That speaks volumes to the team’s character,” Sulaimon said. “But [Trimble and I] have the ball in our hands, and many times we’re the decision makers. We talk about how we have to make the right play. We both know we can score and we both know we can pass, but you have to know when to pass and when to shoot. With the number of guys that can score on our team, we just have to trust our teammates. And if the opportunity presents itself for us to score, then we’ll take it.”
But while Trimble and Sulaimon have, at times, been in sync like Nash and Kobe back in the Lakers’ heyday, the competition’s about to ratchet up a notch. The Terps did have three formidable non-conference foes sprinkled in-between the patsies, but conference play is a different animal. There is no St. Francis (Pa.) waiting to appease a loss against North Carolina.
“It gets real now,” Sulaimon said. “Every game in the Big Ten is not going to be easy. Whether [teams have a] winning record or a losing one, it’s going to be a tough game. And as you go further into conference play, everyone starts to scheme more and knows your tendencies inside and out. So the thing I try to reiterate to the team, and especially the young guys, is we have to be sharp in everything we do, and it will carry over to the game.”
Last year, UMD snuck up on its Big Ten brethren. Picked to finish 10th in the conference, foes underestimated the Terps at times, and Maryland took advantage.
This time around, not so much. Not when you’re the preseason No. 1.
Trimble noted how the squad’s aware, “We’re going to get everyone’s best shot.” But he believes the 2015-16 Terps are prepared for the upcoming Big Ten rigors after a out-of-conference schedule that featured games against Georgetown, UConn and North Carolina, which dealt Maryland its lone loss.
“Those three games really tested us and will help us in the future,” Trimble said. “I’m kind of glad we lost to Carolina, because we got that ‘L’ out of the way and it showed us where we needed to get better.
“But basically we’re starting over, 0-0. We’re not really worried about what we did in the beginning of the season; we’re worried about now. Once you step into conference play, everyone is going to be prepared for you.”
The Terps won’t have to take on the league's upper-tier right away, however. First up on Dec. 30 in College Park is Penn State (9-4), a team picked to finish 11th in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions have suffered defeats at the hands of mid-major foes like Radford and Duquesne, although they’re capable of doing damage thanks to a relatively stout defense (see: victory at Boston College).
Penn State, helped along by a deliberate offensive pace, hold foes to 65.5 points per game on just 40 percent shooting. The Nittany Lions do have issues fouling -- 258 total, among the highest totals in the country -- but PSU records almost five blocks per game thanks to the team’s length.
“Penn State’s a physical team and they’re going to challenge us,” Turgeon said. “We want to play with more toughness.”
Trouble is, Penn State hasn’t generated much offense at all. The Nittany Lions score about 67 a night and only convert at a 41-percent clip, including 31 percent from distance, making them one of the worst shooting high-major teams. Even more egregious, PSU has a 0.87 assist-to-turnover ratio, which ranks 280th out 346 Division I teams.
If the Nittany Lions are going to keep the game close, though, senior forward Brandon Taylor (6-6) will almost certainly be the driving force. The versatile wing averages a team-high 16.2 points per game, shooting 43 percent from the field and 37 percent from range. He also pulls down a leading 6.2 rebounds per, though free-throw shooting (67 percent) and turnovers (a team-high 33) have been issues.
Sophomore guard Shep Garner (6-1) is another potentially potent weapon, putting up 14 points and shooting 41 percent from 3-point range. He’s averaging a Nittany Lions-best 2.7 assists per game and has a 1.6 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Sophomore forward Payton Banks (6-6) comes in with an 11.7 and 5.3 line, doing most of his damage from inside the arc (he struggles from distance). Meanwhile, freshman two-guard Josh Reaves (6-3) only tallies about seven points per on 36 percent shooting.
But watch out for senior center Jordan Dickerson (7-1), a towering paint presence who doesn’t score much (2.8 per) but has a team-high 28 blocks in just 19 minutes of action per night.
“It’s a good matchup for us. We’re constantly having our big guys chase around guards, and those games are pretty tough. Big Ten play should be better for the big guys. I think [PSU] would rather play a bigger lineup,” Turgeon said. “But they can play small too … We’ll do what we have to do to be successful.”
Of course, Turgeon knows what that success starts with:
The guy up top . . . with a little help from his sidekick.