COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Diamond Stone knew this day would come eventually. Even as he signed his name to a Maryland National Letter of Intent last April, choosing the Terrapins over hometown Wisconsin, the former McDonald’s All-American had it in the back of his mind he’d have to face the Madison, Wisc., faithful at least once.
That day arrives Jan. 9 at 1 p.m., the No. 3 Terps (14-1, 3-0 Big Ten) heading north for a bout against the Bo Ryan-less Badgers.
“I’m just really excited to come back home to play in front of my family and friends. They’re going to be excited to see me play there, especially since I played [in Madison] every year in high school for the state championship game,” Stone said Jan. 7. “But it’s just a regular Big Ten game to me. The only difference is there will be a lot of family and friends there. I’m excited to play every game, actually, and I’m excited to play against Bronson [Koenig], Nigel [Hayes] and those guys.”
Yes, Stone should have a fairly sizable cheering section, complete with mom; dad; and relatives donning a No. 33 jersey. But if the freshman big man thinks he’ll be able to spot -- much less hear -- his family, well, he’s in for a bit of a reality check. The majority of the sold-out Kohl Center doesn’t figure to offer such a warm homecoming.
Granted, this isn’t LeBron James returning to Cleveland the year after he signed with the Miami Heat. The city of Madison isn’t going to hire extra police to control the crowd. At most, Stone’s likely to hear a chorus of boos every time he touches the ball, along with a few biting verbal jabs -- nothing different than various Terps have endured at Cameron Indoor Stadium over the years.
That said, Stone’s a freshman and has never had to cope with crowd venom quite like he’ll experience Jan. 9. Which is why Maryland’s Rasheed Sulaimon, a fifth-year senior who has been greeted with his share of fan abuse after transferring from Duke, plans to offer sage advice.
“He hasn’t talked to me yet, but I’m sure he will,” Stone said. “But [the hostility], I will use it as energy and motivation. I’ll just play hard and just try to use it. If the crowd is loud, I like that. I like to play in big environments. I’m pretty sure it will be a sold-out game, and I’m ready to play.”
There’s little reason to doubt him. During Maryland’s last “big-game environment,” in Madison Square Garden, Stone dropped 16 points and nine rebounds on UConn. But, really, Stone’s been ready to play ever since he was relegated to “sixth starter” (head coach Mark Turgeon’s term) eight games into the season.
Since Dec. 4 against St. Francis (Pa.), the freshman’s reeled off eight straight double-digit outings, including that head-turning 39-point outburst against Penn State and a trio of 16-point affairs. On top of that, he’s recorded two double-doubles and had at least two blocks in each of the last four games.
"Diamond gets it. He's coming," Turgeon said. “[Stone coming off the bench] has been really good, because Diamond hasn’t been in foul trouble and Damonte [Dodd] has. The game’s very physical at the beginning; everybody’s jacked up and ready to go.
“Diamond wants to be on the floor at the end of the game. That means he’s arrived, and defensively we have confidence in him to finish the game. That’s the goal more-so than starting the game. The whole thing with not starting is to help him relax and stay out of foul trouble.”
Even so, Stone has had to answer questions about riding pine for the last month. Namely, after that PSU breakout when media, fans and pretty much everyone who follows college basketball figured Turgeon would have to start the freshman sensation.
But, to Stone’s credit, his response has not only been consistent, but totally genuine: “It doesn’t matter. The main goal is to win.”
Thus, Stone promptly returned to the bench three days after Penn State. But on Jan. 6, the Milwaukee native was surprisingly reinserted into the starting five against Rutgers.
Just not by choice.
Thanks to a scorebook snafu (Turgeon refused to reveal the culprit), Stone was forced into action in place of Damonte Dodd. The situation obviously confused the team, because Dodd initially walked onto the floor during pregame introductions, only to do a double-take seconds later.
“Ummm, geez,” Turgeon said, laughing about the ordeal a day later. “It was a mistake. It happened in the book. It’s a good thing we had a good player [Stone], and he was ready to play -- even though he wasn’t mentally prepared for it. But it happens. But it better not happen again (laughs).”
Stone admitted the sudden start caught him off-guard, but it hardly affected his play. Like the rest of the squad, Stone dominated a depleted Rutgers squad to the tune of 15 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks in an 88-63 victory that wasn’t even that close.
Whether or not Stone remains in the starting lineup remains to be seen, but, either way, it was yet another step forward for the surefire lottery pick.
“He’s come a long ways. I think as he grows and matures, he’s starting to realize how important everything we do is. He used to get by with just talent his whole life, and he still gets by with talent -- he’s a talented kid) --but he realizes if he puts more into the game, he’ll get a lot back,” Turgeon said. “It’s steps. We knew we were going to go through it – on and off the court, just bringing more discipline into his life … But he’s further along than I thought he’d be, and if he continues to work at the rate he has been, he should be a pretty special player by the end of the year.”
Stone’s teammates have taken note of the center’s progress as well. Several have pointed out his attention to detail during practice, his workout habits, and his want-to -- especially on the defensive end.
Now, during games, it’s obvious Stone’s fellow Terps have begun to trust him even more. Point guard Melo Trimble routinely feeds him on most possessions, either in the high-post or down low. Meanwhile, Stone’s shifting his weight better and becoming a more potent rim protector and rebounder, meaning Robert Carter hasn’t had to offer as much help defense.
"He's turning a corner," Sulaimon said. "He's definitely making strides for the better. He's definitely better than he was last week. He's definitely better than he was last month. And next week, I expect him to be better as well.”
Stone said once his practice habits improved, he experienced a steady performance uptick. Moreover, he credited the likes of bigs Carter, Dodd, Michal Cekovsky and Ivan Bender for pushing him; mentoring him; and imparting their knowledge. It’s been a major leap from high school, at Dominican (Milwaukee, Wisc.), where Stone was forced to practice against a 6-foot-8 assistant coach because teammates and opponents just couldn’t measure up (quite literally).
“Just competing on a regular basis here, I’m getting more used to playing against bigger guys,” Stone said. “Going against Damonte, Rob, Ceko, Ivan every day has really helped me.”
But Stone’s main driving force, at least verbally, has been Turgeon. The headman wouldn’t admit exactly how he’s gotten under Stone’s skin, but whatever he’s done, it’s working.
“I know what’s inside Diamond, and I know what I can get out of him,” Turgeon said. “There is a great responsibility when you’re recruiting [Stone], and telling him he has the talent to get to the next level, you have to make sure he gets there. … I’m probably harder on Diamond than most of the team because he has the furthest to go. He didn’t like it at first, but I think he’s getting more used to it. And when you have guys with talent, you really want to push him, because I know he has it in him.”
Now, the task of preparing Stone and the rest of his squad for Wisconsin.
Although Maryland’s next foe has struggled, in-conference road games are rarely a breeze, and Madison isn’t exactly the most comfortable environment for visiting teams in general.
“I expect it to be a great crowd. [Wisconsin’s] been in every game. They could have beaten Indiana, they could have beaten Purdue,” Turgeon said. “Greg’s [Gard] doing a great job, and they’re playing better. They’re playing a lot of teams close.”
Turgeon’s required to give props, but Wisconsin (9-7, 1-2 Big Ten) hasn’t resembled a traditional Badgers’ team this year. Which, perhaps, was expected since the program’s in a transition phase after longtime coach Bo Ryan stepped down and interim Greg Gard assumed the reigns. The Badgers do boast two of the conference’s most renowned performers in Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, but Wisconsin isn’t particularly deep (they rotate six or seven) or proficient.
Indeed, the Badgers have struggled offensively all season, and aside from a beatdown against Big Ten basement dweller Rutgers, failed to reach the 60-point threshold in two other conference games against Indiana and Purdue.
Wisconsin is averaging 69.3 points per game and shoots 42 percent from the field, statistics that rank among the bottom third of all Division I teams. The Badgers aren’t much better from 3-point range either, connecting on 33.6 percent of their attempts, putting them 201st nationally.
Wisconsin has just as many turnovers as assists, suggesting a lack of ball-handlers, but the Badgers do hit the offensive glass (13.4 per game) and they aren’t poor foul shooters either (71.3 percent).
Wisconsin has performed a bit better on the defensive end. The Badgers surrender about 64 points per (37th nationally), allow foes to hit 42 percent of their shots (114th nationally), and, as always, they command the glass. Wisconsin out-boards teams by about eight per game; only 25 teams rank higher nationally.
That said, Wisconsin hasn’t locked down the arc, opponents converting at a 38 percent clip from deep, which puts the Badgers among the worst 50 perimeter-defense squads in Division I.
Junior point-forward Nigel Hayes (6-8) represents Wisconsin’s breadwinner. The do-it-all combo can score (15.7 points per game), pass (a team-high 61 assists), rebound (6.5 a night); and defend (17 steals). Hayes isn’t the most efficient shooter (37 percent), but he can step outside to knock down the occasional 3.
Hayes’ classmate, guard Bronson Koenig (6-4), averages almost 14 points per game and is Wisconsin’s best 3-point marksman at 36.7 percent. He’s also second on the squad in assists and one of the most reliable free-throw shooters (80 percent).
Meanwhile, junior guard Zak Showalter (6-2) averages 8.3 points on 46 precent from the field and 36.5-percent from range. But Showalter’s calling-card is his foul shooting, where he’s 92.3 percent -- albeit on only 26 attempts.
On the interior, freshman Ethan Happ (6-9) is known for his rebounding and rim-protecting prowess, pulling down a Badgers-best 8.1 boards per game to go along with 19 blocks. He’s not too shabby scoring inside either, shooting at a 55-percent rate and tallying 11 points per game.
Fellow forward Vittto Brown (6-8), a junior, sits just behind Happ in terms of rebounding (6.3 a game) and blocks (13 total), but he’s had issues putting the ball in the bucket. Brown averages almost 10 points, but he’s just 39.5 percent from the field and 27.6 percent from deep.
But, despite the shortcomings, don’t expect Turgeon and Co. to take the Badgers lightly.
“I think they’ve had an extra day to prepare, and it’s a tough turnaround for us -- a noon central time start. And we expect to take everybody’s best shot,” Turgeon said. “But we’re starting to relish [taking those shots] and look forward to those situations. We’re getting better in those situations, and hopefully that will continue [Jan. 9].”
If Turgeon, Stone and the Terps can weather the Kohl Center Storm it’ll be another stride towards becoming a complete, battle-tested team. A team with real Final Four aspirations.
“That’s the main reason why I picked Maryland… I wanted to be on a championship contender,” Stone said. “Milwaukee has always been my home, but Maryland is my new home. I love the campus, I love my teammates and I love the seafood (laughs).”
Crabcakes and basketball?
Sure, why not?
Note: Turgeon also commented on point guard Melo Trimble’s status. Trimble injured his hamstring Jan. 6 against Rutgers, but is expected to play against Wisconsin:
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“[Trimble] went through a two week period where he wasn’t doing very well. He was stiff. He’s doing better [Jan. 7]. He’s still stiff, getting a ton of treatment, he’ll get a massage. Hopefully he’ll be better on Saturday, but we’ll see. It’s something we’re concerned about, but with proper care and stretching he should be fine.”