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For Maryland basketball, the NCAA Tournament is Melo Trimble's moment

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Maybe this is the end, and maybe it's not. Either way, Melo Trimble has business to handle.

Sung Min Kim/Testudo Times

The Melo Trimble who arrived at Bishop O'Connell High School six years ago was, in some ways, a lot like the one who has starred the last two seasons for the Maryland men's basketball program. In other ways, the two are very different.

"When he first came to O'Connell, when he would shake your hand, he wouldn't look you in the eye. He'd kind of turn away, so he was probably a little bit more shy," said Joe Wootten, the head basketball coach and athletic director at the Northern Virginia private school. "But he was always confident on the court."

At 21, that confidence has helped make Trimble the preeminent Maryland athlete of this era. He is the most recognized face among the university's 27,000-some undergraduates, and he can barely go anywhere in College Park without iPhones and autograph pens coming out. He goes to watch high school basketball games elsewhere in the area, and the carnival follows him. He's become a celebrity in a way even most big-time college athletes cannot match.

"People say he's very shy, because he is very shy," said Maryland guard Andrew Terrell, one of Trimble's roommates. "He minds to himself a lot, but when he does get the attention, he's very well-mannered about it. He's very appreciative, and he's gracious."

Trimble poses for pictures and signs shirts and pictures after just about every Maryland game, and he's asked to take a lot of selfies and give out a lot of hugs when he's out and about in College Park. Trimble has said the experience brings "great things," and he always obliges. On some level, that's because he expected it all along.

"He's a very genuine kid," Wootten said. "But I think he saw great things for himself. He was driven. I'm sure you've heard the stories of him. He lived an hour away from O'Connell, and he would get here three days a week for all four years and shoot by himself in the gym before school at 6 a.m. He was driven. He's got it in him."

trimble

(Sung Min Kim/Testudo Times)

At school, Trimble is a popular man. On the court, though, that doesn't mean much.

"He does a great job of blocking it out," Maryland assistant coach Bino Ranson said. "He's just a great person. He's like that off the court, and he's like that on the court."

"He's very quiet, very sincere kid," added former Maryland walk-on Jacob Susskind, Trimble's teammate last year. "And he's just a great person to be around. The only big thing that he's gotten into is his hair."

***
The first impression

When Trimble committed to the Terrapins in December 2012, the winter of his junior year, he wasn't a hugely touted recruit and Maryland wasn't a particularly successful program. The Terps were hurtling toward their second bad season in a row under Turgeon (there'd be a third on the way) and struggling with guard play. Yet, Trimble was set early on Maryland.

"The last thing you want is to have a kid commit and then decommit," Wootten said. "So I said, 'Gee, if you're going to commit, you should make sure that if any school comes in, that this is your dream school.' And he said, 'No, Maryland's my dream school.'"

When he got to Maryland in the summer of 2014, Trimble made a quick impression. Weekly during the offseason, the team's basketball performance director, Kyle Tarp, put the Terrapins through a grueling sled-pushing exercise.

"It was the most miserable thing that you'd ever experience," Susskind said. "And Melo just came and kicked everyone's ass. He's a workhorse."

Trimble was Maryland's starting point guard the second he stepped foot on campus. He'll be Maryland's starting point guard until the second he decides to leave, whenever that comes.

Over time, Turgeon has developed almost a familial adoration for Trimble. When he fielded a question about Trimble after Maryland's game against Michigan on Feb. 21, Turgeon got tears and his eyes and nearly started crying:

"I love that kid."

***
The rise

When Trimble joined the program, Maryland was reeling from a rash of five transfers – including its top two point guards, Seth Allen and Roddy Peters – and coming off a 17-15 season. He was the starting point guard because Turgeon absolutely didn't have a choice.

It turned out to be for the best. Trimble issued one of the great freshman seasons in the history of Maryland basketball. He scored 16 points, four rebounds and three assists per game and made all-conference. He drove Maryland's foul shooting from a liability into a strength, and he teamed with Dez Wells to give Maryland a frightening backcourt.

Wells was Maryland's leader last year, a fan favorite for all three seasons he spent as a Terp. But Trimble was Maryland's undisputed best player and the single biggest difference between the Terps being bad and then good. He had a reasonable case to leave for the NBA Draft, but he opted to stick around for what would become a loaded Maryland team.

"I think it wasn't a tough decision at all. People projected me to go kind of first round, second round, but I knew that didn't matter," Trimble said. "I needed to get better at certain aspects of my game - my passing ability, defense, just being a stronger and more experienced player.

Trimble started his sophomore year looking better than ever for 10 games.

***
The slump

For the first year and a half of Trimble's time at Maryland, he was on a rocket ship ride that seemed like it would never end. After his freshman season, the Big Ten honored him as its preseason player of the year this fall. Trimble was deadly in non-conference play and stood a good chance to make first-team All-America.

Then came conference play, and Trimble hit what Ranson called an "ice patch."

He was still productive on some level, but he wasn't the same Trimble that drove Turgeon's Maryland to new heights as a freshman. He averaged 15 points, five assists and four rebounds against league opponents, marking a one-point decline in scoring but a small jump in rebounding and significant one in playmaking from his freshman season.

He's a more rounded player than he used to be, but there have been a few problems. For one thing, Trimble's three-point shooting has nosedived, from 41 percent overall as a freshman to 33 percent this year. For another, the preternatural ability Trimble showed to draw fouls and earn free throws last year hasn't materialized so much in the new year. His free throw attempts per game have fallen from 6.9 to 4.6. (His percentage of makes has been nearly identical, 86 percent.) All in all, Trimble hasn't been as bad as some say, but he hasn't been quite good enough, either.

"We put our arm around him and just told him, ‘It's OK, man. Just take all the pressure off. It's OK.'" Rasheed Sulaimon on Melo Trimble

Entering the NCAA Tournament, Trimble hasn't shot better than 50 percent from the field in a game since Feb. 3, but he's put together a handful of better outings lately.

"I went through a little bump during the season," Trimble told me after scoring 16 points in Maryland's Big Ten quarterfinal win over Nebraska last Friday. "In the second half of the season, my shot wasn't falling. I wasn't playing the basketball I was capable of playing. I just had to overcome that. I couldn't get down on myself."

These things are rarely linear. The next day, Trimble shot 2-of-15 from the field in a three-point loss to Michigan State. The Spartans bothered him by showing him multiple defenders with their hands in his face every time Turgeon tried to free Trimble with a high ball screen, and the point guard wasn't able to get downhill toward the basket.

Trimble said it was "an adjustment that I'm going to have to make" before Maryland's NCAA run begins.

***
The future

The Terrapins play their first tournament game on Friday afternoon, against South Dakota State in Spokane, Wash. They are the No. 5 seed in the South region, a lower slot than any of them expected when the season began. But they're still an extraordinarily confident group, with a faith that very much extends to their point guard.

"Everyone on this team has the utmost confidence in Melo, and we told him that," said his backcourt partner, Rasheed Sulaimon. "We put our arm around him and just told him, ‘It's OK, man. Just take all the pressure off. It's OK.' That's why basketball's a team sport. If one man is down, the next man has to step up. We know what Melo's capable of on a nightly basis, and once he got out of his head, he's gonna play at a high level."

Maryland guard Varun Ram has the assignment of pestering Trimble on defense during Maryland's practices. While Trimble was at the depths of his slump – around mid- and late February – Ram saw a different demeanor than normal. Trimble smiles a lot, but Ram stopped seeing a grin on Trimble's face while his play was at its lowest point.

trimble stone

(Sung Min Kim/Testudo Times)

"I think, sometimes, you get lost in the pressure and all the outside expectations, and I think some of that crept in," Ram said. "But I think we're getting back to having fun."

Nobody can say for sure what Trimble's future holds, either this spring or afterward. His game has gotten better in myriad ways, even as his scoring efficiency has dipped in his sophomore campaign. Trimble will evaluate his NBA options after the season, and some people around the program think he'll leave. Some think he won't. If Trimble's thinking about it at all, he hasn't tipped his hand even to the people in his tightest circle.

"He's really focused on having the best Maryland finish and the best season they can," Wootten said.

Nobody has more potential to sway that Maryland finish than Trimble, and the Terps' season could hinge on how well he plays. That's a lot to put on Trimble, but it's not coincidental that Maryland's late-season downturn happened just as Trimble's play was worsening. If the Terps' fortunes are about to turn, Trimble's will probably have to turn, too.

Maybe that will happen, and maybe it won't. Maybe this is Trimble's closing act at Maryland, and maybe it isn't. Maybe this Maryland season still ends how everyone envisioned it would from the start, and maybe it ends with heartache.

Trimble just isn't nearly as preoccupied with all of these maybes as the rest of us.

"He just has poise," Wootten said. "I always say that the greatest players, they never get rattled. They're not worried about what's gonna happen next. They're not worried about what happened before. They just play in the moment. That's really what makes a great athlete. It's somebody who plays in the moment. He does it better than anybody I've ever been around."

This is Melo Trimble's moment, at least until the next one.