COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Much has been made of Rasheed Sulaimon’s presence at Maryland since his arrival from Duke. No, make that his presence, like some overarching celestial existence pervading over the men’s basketball team, subconsciously guiding them to a 13-1 start.
Initially, the fifth-year senior was compared to former Terps’ stalwart Dez Wells in terms of his veteran leadership, but not even Wells earned the lavish praise and reverence heaped on Sulaimon thus far.
“[Sulaimon] been a leader since he’s been here,” Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon said Jan. 5, searching for new ways to describe the shooting guard’s impact. “He likes to talk, he likes to communicate, and the guys listen to him.
“And he just makes winning plays -- assists, rebounds, taking a charge, locking a guy up, communicating, talking during timeouts. He’s all about winning, and he’s infectious. I keep saying he’s taught Melo [Trimble] more than I have about what to do when you’re not scoring.”
Sulaimon’s fellow Terps, from Jake Layman to Robert Carter to Jared Nickens to Jaylen Brantley to the All-American himself, Trimble, have all chimed in with similar sentiments. In fact, Trimble basically credited Sulaimon with helping him become a more complete player.
Just don’t expect Sulaimon to acknowledge such comments.
“I still just kind of see myself as one of the new guys,” Sulaimon said, an artist at deflecting credit.
Maybe more impressive than anything he’s imparted on his teammates or done on the court -- and he’s done quite a lot, averaging 10.5 points, shooting 50 percent from the floor, 50 percent from range and recording 3.5 rebounds a a night -- is Sulaimon’s genuine selflessness. Truth be told, he seems to have no ego whatsoever.
Sixth man? He’s cool with it. Deferring to teammates? Sure thing. Passing up open shots in favor of a better look? Right on. Sacrificing offense in favor of lockdown defense? All for it.
Witness Maryland’s last game against Northwestern, a 72-59 victory in Evanston, Ill. There was Sulaimon setting the tone with a steal out of the gate. There was Sulaimon’s dishing out four assists in the second half to stave off a Wildcats’ comeback. There was Sulaimon holding his counterpart, Tre Demps, to a 4-of-16 shooting night, forcing NU’s Bryant McIntosh to account for the bulk of the offensive production.
“When it comes to the game, I can be a scorer, defender, facilitator, leader -- I’ll do whatever it takes to help the team win,” Sulaimon said. “I’m willing to do whatever the teams asks.
“We always try to be accountable for ourselves. Everyone here, not just me, is really invested in our team. At the end of the day, all we want to do is go out there and win.”
One of the ways Maryland’s been winning of late is the team’s commitment to defense. Sulaimon’s been a pesky gnat all season, but his teammates have started to catch up during Big Ten play, stifling both Penn State and Northwestern.
“I think transition defense has really gotten better, I think our post defense has gotten a lot better and I think our awareness has gotten a lot better,” Turgeon said. “Great team defense is about trust, and our guys are starting to trust each other.”
The Nittany Lions shot 43 percent from the field, and the Wildcats 37 percent. PSU hit just 26.3 percent of its 3-pointers, and NU canned only 10 percent. The Terps racked up turnovers, blocks (nine against Northwestern) and rebounds, trumping their last two foes in all three areas.
“We just have a new focus, a higher focus. We have the tools and type of players to be a great defensive team,” Sulaimon said. “To be successful in the Big Ten and down the road, we need to make defense a priority, and we just have a deeper focus on that side of the ball.”
Specifically, Turgeon and Sulaimon pointed to freshman center Diamond Stone’s paint presence. Turgeon relegated Stone to a sixth-man role, because be wanted a better interior defender (Damonte Dodd) starting games. But of late Stone’s been stepping up, tallying four blocks the past two outings, while doing his best to box out and deny his counterparts.
“I think [Stone is] really starting to grow as a defender. [Northwestern] was a difficult game for our ‘5’ man, and his defense was really good,” Turgeon said. “He really tried to do the right things in that game. It’s just a process. He just wants to be a complete athlete, and that’s what I’m most impressed with.”
Speaking of big men, there haven’t been many Michal Cekovsky sightings recently. The sophomore flashed vast improvement on both ends earlier during the campaign, but he’s seen his time dwindle of late. He received five total minutes against Northwestern.
“We have so many good players, it’s hard. He just has to continue to play with confidence and be really rock solid defensively for us,” Turgeon said. “We need him. He knows it, and hopefully we can give him the confidence to [perform] moving forward.”
Turgeon went on to acknowledge he’d like the rest of his bench to step up as Big Ten play moves along. Stone is basically the “sixth starter,” so he doesn’t count, but the headman realizes he’s going to need Cekovsky, Jared Nickens and Jaylen Brantley when the going gets tough. Those three scored a total of five points during the Wildcats’ affair.
“We need more moving forward. There’s a couple guys we’d like to get playing better, and it’s my job to get them playing better,” Turgeon said. “The deeper we can be, the better we’ll be. I’m not as concerned about it, because I know Jared [Nickens] can put up 20 on any given night, but we do need more.”
Said Sulaimon: “Everybody’s important. That’s one of our mantras this year – just stay ready. [The backups] are one of the biggest reasons we’ve played so well. They give us energy, especially in a hostile environment. We need them.”
Sulaimon can point to the Northwestern game as evidence. The Wildcats packed their tiny field house, the decibels reaching ear-splitting levels.
Turgeon, though, was pleased with how his team (including those second-stringers) handled the atmosphere. The Terps remained calm, never panicked and continued to maintain a comfortable lead throughout.
UMD will be thrown into a similar environment Jan. 9 at Wisconsin, but first the Terps return home to their own raucous crowd. The Xfinity Center’s sold out every game this season, the fans turning out even with students on winter break.
“The crowd is amazing. Especially being on break, them coming out and supporting us, it’s great,” Robert Carter said. “The crowd is a huge part of the game and it gives us energy.”
Turgeon said Maryland may have lost games against Georgetown, Penn State and maybe even Rider had it not been for the College Park faithful.
“The crowd just wouldn’t let us lose,” Turgeon said. “I told the guys [out of a timeout against Penn State], you make sure you wave to the crowd when you get back out there. … When you have a passionate fan base like we have, sometimes it helps you win games you’re not supposed to win.”
UMD is certainly supposed to win its game Jan. 6, a 7 p.m. affair against a presumed Big Ten bottom feeder. The Rutgers Scarlet Knights (6-9) have lost both league-play affairs (Indiana and at Wisconsin), and have dropped every game against their high-major and mid-major foes (St. John’s, Clemson, Seton Hill, Wake Forest, Creighton and Monmouth).
Naturally, the numbers bear out the results. RU is ranked 261st nationally in scoring (69 points per game), 245th in field-goal percentage (42.6 percent) and 160th in 3-point percentage (34.4 percent). The Scarlet Knights’ defense has been equally deficient, Rutgers surrendering 73 points per game (210th nationally) and allowing opponents to shoot 43.6 percent from the field (208th) and 34.4 percent from deep (160th).
On top of that, RU has turned the ball over more often than it’s handed out assists; has been out-boarded by about a rebound per game; and has hit less than 70 percent of its free throws.
Freshman point guard Corey Sanders (6-2) represents the squad’s most proficient performer. He leads the team in scoring (14.2 points per) and assists (4.5 per), and has been effective from the field (43.6 percent) and beyond the arc (38.6 percent).
Fellow backcourt mate Mike Williams (6-2) puts up 11 a night -- the only other healthy Scarlet Knight averaging double figures -- but he’s hitting on only 36 percent of his attempts, including 26 percent from range.
Senior guard Bishop Daniels (6-3) is the team’s sixth man, although he sees 23 minutes a game. He’s third on the squad at 9.1 points per and 40 percent shooting. Another guard, senior Omari Grier (6-4), has been known to knock down triples, nailing them at a 54-percent rate, although he only averages 6.4 points and 16 minutes per game.
It’s that backcourt that has Turgeon somewhat concerned.
“They have great guard play, and whenever teams have great guard play it worries you,” Turgeon said. “They have four guys that can score the ball. They’re great in transition, they change their defenses, and they played us close in two games last year.”
Now, about that frontcourt . . .
Sophomore forward D.J. Foreman (6-8) isn’t much of a scorer (7.8 points per game), but he leads the team in rebounding at 6.5 per game. Likewise, 6-9 center Greg Lewis doesn’t put the ball in the bucket very often (4.5 points per), although he pulls down 5.4 boards per and has a team-high 15 blocks. Freshman forward Laurent Johnson (6-6) typically chips in a couple buckets in 19 minutes of action each night too.
It hasn’t helped that Rutgers is down three post presences, leaving the Scarlet Knights with just eight scholarship players and two true big men. Injuries to backups Ibrahima Diallo and Shaq Doorson sapped RU’s depth, but the key loss was 6-7 junior forward Deshawn Freeman, who was the team’s second-leading scorer (13 points per game) and most efficient shooter (54.4 percent). Freeman hurt his knee in late November and isn’t expected back until mid-January.
Given the above, the Terps should cruise to an easy victory. But leave it to Sulaimon to issue a firm warning: There will be no looking ahead to Wisconsin.
“Good teams don’t have a letdown after a big win on the road,” said the team’s Presence. “We’re a good team, and we’re focused and we’re ready.”