COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Iowa was a rather hot topic of conversation Feb. 12 at the Xfinity Center. The Hawkeyes, after all, had lost to Indiana the night before, vaulting Maryland (22-3, 10-2 Big Ten) into first place in the Big Ten. But when Iowa was broached during UMD head coach Mark Turgeon’s press conference, he admitted he didn’t watch the game and only knew the outcome thanks to his son.
So rather than comment on Iowa-Indiana specifically, he started talking about balls. Yes, balls.
Specifically, the Under Armour balls Maryland uses during home games, which the Hawkeyes readily complained about during their January foray through College Park.
“I don’t think it’s a story. We played at Michigan and Nebraska with Adidas balls, and it took us awhile to get used to. It is what it is,” Turgeon said. “It’s the way the game is set up. You play here you’ve got Nike balls, you play there you’ve got Adidas balls, you’ve got Sterling balls … Until someone says we’re all going to play with the same ball, it’s how it is.”
The Terps, however, are one of the only Division I teams in the nation to roll out the UA branded ball, and apparently it’s “heavy like a street ball,” per the Hawkeyes.
“I just feel like if you play with a different ball than everybody else it’s an edge,” Turgeon said. “Some people play with The Rock. It’s just an edge when you play with a different ball every day. It’s an edge for us here. We love the ball.”
When Rasheed Sulaimon, Maryland’s senior guard, was informed of the comments coming out of Iowa City, he just shook his head.
“I’m not even worried about it. Whatever ball they pull, if it’s circular and I can see it go through the hoop, I’m fine,” he said.
Well, maybe not. Sulaimon’s 3-point percentage, and that of his teammates, is much lower on the road than it is at home. Maybe they’re a little too used to that home cooking UA ball.
“Look,” Turgeon said, “you’re not going to hear any excuses from me about balls (laughs).”
Of course, the most significant 3-point shot the Terps have converted all year came away from the Xfinity Center confines. Sophomore point guard Melo Trimble was toting a Nike sphere when he knocked down a buzzer-beating 35-footer to down Wisconsin Jan. 9.
A little more than a month later, Trimble and the Terps are ready for Badgers Part Deux, this time Feb. 13 at College Park. Naturally, the rematch prompted nostalgic inquiries, taking Turgeon and Trimble back to Madison, Wisc.
“I didn’t like that shot. I was already upset we blew an eight-point lead in 1:15. The [Badgers] made some really nice shots to get it tied. But I’m just glad he made it and we didn’t have to go into overtime,” said Turgeon, who mentioned he’d like Trimble’s early-game shooting and ball-handling to eventually match his late-game prowess. “He just thought he had to take it from that distance because they were zoning up on him, and he wouldn’t have been able to get in the paint. But, you know, ancient history. You move on.”
Trimble, for his part, laughed when told his coach wasn’t a huge fan of the deep 3.
“I didn’t think the shot was that bad. Of course when it went in it was a great shot,” said Trimble, who received a shout out from one of his idols, Steph Curry, recently. “But I guess when the clock’s winding down it’s always good to get to the basket and try to draw a foul.
“But I’m a very confident player and my teammates believe in me. They also believe in me to be more of a leader down the stretch. I’ve been in a lot of close games, and my teammates always look to me in the huddles. I could tell during the game, we were into it and wanted to win so bad, and they all just leaned on me to be the leader.”
Indeed they do, per Sulaimon. Although the fifth-year transfer also admitted there’s more than one Terp who can pull the trick.
“Melo’s not afraid to take the big shot. At that point in the game, he was playing well and wanted the ball in his hands. We all had confidence he was going to make that shot, and fortunately he did for us,” Sulaimon said. “But we have a lot of guys on our team who are ready to step up and take that shot, that have that ‘it’ factor going for them. When it comes to pressure situations like that, it’s not, ‘I’m taking the shot.’ It’s ‘Maryland’s taking the shot, and we’re trying to win this game.’ it takes a lot of pressure off of you when you look at it from that perspective.”
Turgeon concurred with his senior, pointing out Maryland’s had more than a couple players rise to the occasion during big moments this year. He specifically mentioned Sulaimon, junior forward Robert Cater, senior wing Jake Layman and freshman center Diamond Stone.
“You either have it or you don’t. I feel like I’ve got a lot of guys that like those situations and can step up,” Turgeon said. “It’s good to have guys like that, that thrive in those moments.”
Sulaimon said it takes a special kind of mentality to become a clutch, ice-in-the-veins shooter. The key, he explained, is not being afraid of failure.
“Everyone hates failure, but you can learn from it. Michael Jordan, probably the best closer ever, missed more shots than he made down the stretch,” Sulaimon said. “You just have to have confidence to continue to shoot them. And if you don’t make them, you regroup and move on to the next play.”
Now, the Terps are hoping they won’t need more late-game heroics as they go for the season sweep against Wisconsin (15-9, 7-4), which Maryland defeated 63-60 Jan. 9. But rather than entering into a demoralizing tailspin following Trimble’s dagger triple, the Badgers have actually responded with six wins in their last seven games. In order, Greg Gard’s squad has knocked off No. 4 Michigan Sate, Penn State, No. 19 Indiana, Illinois, Ohio State and Nebraska.
The Badgers still don’t reside among the conference’s upper-tier statistically speaking, but they are playing better and slowly creeping up the leaderboards.
“We just have to focus; they’re a good team and we barely escaped there,” Sulaimon said. “They have a lot of good players that can put the ball in the basket. It’s going to be a tough game. Wisconsin is a gritty team.”
Offensively, the methodical Badgers are averaging 70 points per game (11th in the Big Ten), shooting 43.4 percent from the field (10th), 35.5 percent from 3-point range (seventh) and 71 percent from the line (ninth). The Badgers have an 0.8 turnover margin (sixth) and a 1.0 assist-to-turnover ratio (11th). Wisconsin particularly potent on the offensive glass, however, pulling down 12 boards per game, which ranks fourth in the Big Ten.
On defense, the Badgers hold teams to 65 points per game (fourth) and 43 percent from the field (eighth), but they’re poor defending the triple, opponents shooting 38.3 percent against them. But Wisconsin has a 4.7 rebounding margin (fifth), doing their best to keep foes off the glass. The Badgers aren’t especially prolific rim protectors (3.3 blocks per game; 11th), however.
The Terps, though, ravaged Wisconsin’s defense in Madison. Maryland ended up shooting 52 percent from the field and canned 4-of-11 3-pointers. Trimble, who earned the lead spot on SportsCenter that night, dropped 21 on 9-of-17 from the field, while Robert Carter had 14 points and 11 rebounds. Diamond Stone racked up 11 points, while Damonte Dodd added nine and six boards (he did turn the ball over four times too).
The Terps did turn the ball over 16 times, but they beat the Badgers on the boards, 34-32.
Meanwhile, the Badgers converted at a 38.7 percent from the field and 33 percent from distance, although only 45.5 percent from the line. Wing Nigel Hayes (6-8) led the way with 17 points, including two triples, and forward Ethan Happ (6-9) chipped in 16. Guard Bronson Koenig (6-4) scored 13 points, dropping a trio of 3s.
“That seems like so long ago, that [Jan. 9] game, to be quite honest with you. We’re much more complete than we were then,” Turgeon said. “[Wisconsin] is like us; they’re a really good home game. I went back and re-watched [the Jan. 9 game] a couple times the last few days. I think both teams have gotten a lot better since then. I know we have and they’ve won six straight. There’s some things we might do a little different, I’m sure there are things they might do a little different. But it should be a great game.”
Speaking of Koenig, the off-the-ball guard is second on the team at 13.3 points and two assists per game. He shoots just 40 percent from the field, but is deadly from range (39 percent). Koenig also plays the point, but shares ball-handling duties with Hayes and backcourt mate Zak Showalter (6-2).
Showalter only scores about seven points a night, but he’s an 80 percent free-throw shooter (tops on the team) and cans 37 percent of his 3s. He’s also grabbing four rebounds per game.
Hayes, the point-forward, leads the squad with 17 and six line. He’s also dropping a Badgers’-best 3.5 assists a night and only turns it over about two times per.
On the interior, Ethan Happ (6-9) has emerged as one of the Big Ten’s foremost rebounders during his freshman year. Happ’s grabbing eight boards a night, to go along with 12 points and squad-high 24 total blocks (one per game). He’s also shooting 54 percent from the field, which is first on the team.
Finally, forward Vitto Brown (6-8) puts up nine points and corrals five rebounds per game. Brown shoots at a 42 percent clip, and can step out and hit the occasional 3 (14 for the season).
“They’re confident. Nigel Hayes and Koenig are special players, and they’re making shots. And defensively they’ve grown too,” Turgeon said. “It just took time for Greg [Gard]; he’s new. It’s the same system, but it was a different coach and they had to get used to it. … It doesn’t surprise me what they’re doing. When we left that building I was like, ‘This is a heck of a team. I don’t know how many teams are going to win here.’”
Not many have.
Fortunately for the Terps, this game’s at Xfinity, where Maryland doesn’t lose. But regardless of where the match is played, Turgeon said his squad is has improved considerably since Jan. 9 and “is starting to feel right.”
“Defensively, you can sit over there and know most of the time guys are doing to do it right. And offensively, even though we’re not shooting a great percentage from 3 in the league, we’re executing at a high level, and adding little things that will help us be a more complete team. And I think our bench is getting more comfortable with their roles, and I think we’re slowly becoming a more complete basketball team,” Turgeon said. “But we have some tough games ahead of us … and we want to keep getting better and playing our best basketball in March. And we’re heading in that direction, and that’s what’s exciting to me.”