COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Melo Trimble said he was having fun this season.
And that was maybe the best news for Maryland basketball fans that could have come out of the Terrapins’ annual Media Day at Xfinity Center.
“I’m having fun this season just being myself,” said Trimble, who has embraced his new role as a team leader. “That’s the biggest thing Coach (Mark) Turgeon wanted, me to just be myself and the rest will take care of itself.”
“The rest” is the expectations for a program that while not in the Top 5 like this time last year, is still upper echelon and in everybody’s Top 25. Maybe Maryland might enjoy flying a little under the radar until Turgeon fully integrates six new players into the mix and reshapes a team that lost four starters, two of which landed in the NBA, off last year’s 27-9 Sweet Sixteen team.
One of those NBA players, famously, was not Trimble, who by all accounts –even his own– slumped last year as ankle and hamstring injuries slowed him and he found himself often thinking about this season instead of focusing on that one.
“I don’t want to worry about being at the next level,” he said. “That pretty much hurt myself and hurt the team last year. A lot of us were thinking about the next level too much. Coach Turgeon said it, and he was right. I’m more about the team and trying to do good things for the University of Maryland.”
So not only is Melo more mellow, he’s also more healthy.
“I feel great,” he said. “I put in a lot of work with (Director of Basketball Performance) Kyle (Tarp) over the summer. Going through the (NBA Draft) process I learned that you really have to take care of your body. That’s what I’m going to do this year.”
And that likely means the Terrapins will be taking care of business this year, too. Living up to their own high expectations rather than that of polls and prognosticators. “We were Top 5 in most polls last year, and I think we’re still ranked, but this year is different,” said Turgeon. “Because it was the first time we had been ranked so high I think it was a lot on the guys. With that said, that was a fun team to coach, great season, but this team has a little bit of a chip on their shoulder, hungry. Looking forward to the challenges that lie ahead.”
Turgeon said he has thanked this team at the end of each of the three weeks of practice so far because “they’ve been so enjoyable.” Basketball lifer Turg is always happiest this time of year, putting together the pieces out of the media spotlight, not even games to interfere with his sacred practices. He admitted they’ve had some long practices so far with so many newcomers and so much for them to learn.
“At times it has been tough because there’s a whole bunch of new faces on the team but Coach Turgeon has been great,” said one of the most touted of the freshman, 6-7 Justin Jackson. “Sometimes he gets hard on us, but he just wants to see us get better.
Another of those impact freshmen – and Turgeon confessed that Jackson, Kevin Huerter and Anthony Cowan would have an immediate impact – Cowan, said the incredibly versatile Jackson was a “6-7 point guard.” Turgeon said Jackson would play a lot of “four” (power forward), which means he definitely has designs on playing more small-ball this year.
“We’re going to run, drive into the paint and kick out for threes,” said Trimble, obviously overjoyed at the prospect. “Last year we weren’t really able to do that because we had such a post presence with Diamond (Stone) and Rob (Carter). We didn’t have as much opportunity to play small, but this year we’re very fast and we can all shoot and we’ll have fun with that.”
Trimble’s load should be lightened a bit by Cowan, the 6-O water bug that can change a lot of things for Maryland. “Anthony is something we haven’t really had since I’ve been here,” said Turgeon. “He’s fast, probably going to the fastest guy in the league. I can’t imagine someone being faster. He can really defend, pick up full court and pressure the ball, fast on the break. He’s a pass-first point guard which is great for our team right now.”
Turgeon’s team is loaded with passers and shooters. He said Dion Wiley may be the team’s best passer, particularly on ball screens. Wiley, coming off knee surgery from his injury about this time last year, will also figure in the ballhanding. The year away helped him, said the coach.
“Sometimes sitting out is a good thing because he could just sit back and really study it, and mature in a different way. I think he’s much further along because of that.”
Turgeon also lauded the work Wiley had done in conditioning – he has lost 20 pounds down to 202 since last year – and Wiley says his knee is 100 percent healthy. Meanwhile, junior Jaylen Brantley, who never quite got in sync last season, has been one of the best players in practice so far. “He’s constantly communicating, practicing hard and competing,” said Turgeon. “He has been terrific, just a completely different kid than he was last year. It’s exciting. It has made our team a lot better.”
So where last year there wasn’t much depth behind Trimble, now there are options with all that depth on the perimeter. Cowan was already looking forward to playing alongside Trimble, not just behind him. The two came up in the same D.C. AAU program, Cowan in a younger group, but they watched each other’s games. “We feel comfortable together,” said Cowan. “We both know each other’s role on the team. We hold each other accountable.”
In fact, they hold each other more accountable than you might imagine. Turgeon had teammates set goals for each other this preseason and assigned Trimble and Cowan to do so for each other. Cowan said those goals weren’t for public consumption, however.
As for Huerter, Turgeon said he was “one of the better shooters I’ve ever coached and I’ve coached a lot of great shooters.” Huerter has grown to 6-7, is a knockdown shooter from deep, though his defense is still a work in progress.
Turgeon is exploring what he can do with this team defensively, and again, there are a lot of options. “We’ve got a lot of guys that can guard,” said center Damonte Dodd, one of only two seniors on the roster. “Anthony Cowan picks up full court every day and we’ve got guys buying into defense. We’re going to be a fast-paced team getting up and down the court.”
The team’s other senior is newcomer L.G. Gill, the 6-8 Duquesne transfer who impressed in the Saturday open scrimmage and is perhaps a perfect fit, which is why Maryland recruited him so hard after he became available. “L.G. was a must-get for us, we had to have him when Robert came in and told me he was going,” said Turgeon. “I said before, I recruited him like he was Kevin Durant, and we had to have him. He has been terrific.”
Gill is an energy guy, a scrapper around the basket who can bounce out and shoot from deep. Most of all he signs on hungry. “I want to come in and win,” he said. “I haven’t really been able to win that much or even play in the tournament. That’s a goal for me and for the team, as well.”
Gill is a smaller big, and Turgeon is counting on bigger things from all the returnees up front – 7-1 junior Michal Cekovsky, the 6-11 Dodd and 6-9 sophomore Ivan Bender, who has been another October revelation with his improvement.
“I feel more confident this year because I practiced all last season with those guys and I know what I’m capable of doing,” said Bender, who has reformed his body into a more chiseled 235. “I wasn’t that confident last season. I was always guarding Diamond and Rob or Ceko or Damonte, so it really helped a lot. I’m playing better this year because of them.”
Ceko said the hamstring injury that slowed him earlier this month has healed to where he’s back practicing fully. He projects as the starting center, not that he’s fixated on that topic. “It doesn’t matter whether I start or not, I just want to help my team,” he said. “I was here the whole summer and I worked to improve my low post game and I worked with strength coaches to be stronger.”
Junior Jared Nickens said he worked on his mid-range game and ballhandling. He also worked on Trimble or at least with him on this leadership thing. “It’s a work in progress because there were always guys ahead of to speak,” said Nickens. “Our freshman year we had Dez (Wells) and last year we had Rob and Rasheed (Suliamon) most of the time. I try to embrace (being a leader) day by day. It’s great having the guys look up to you.”
Trimble knows that feeling, too: “You just try to set an example for the younger guys, being at practice way before it starts, putting in extra work, putting up extra shots. We’ve had long practices this year and you have to stay focused. I just bring a lot of energy and leadership, leading by example. I teach the guys to have fun because I’ve been through it.”
And Trimble seemed legitimately happy to give it another go this season. The Terrapins are certainly happy to have him back.
The team has its exhibition game Nov. 5 at 2 p.m., against Catawba. The regular season opener against American is Nov. 11 at 7 p.m.