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Maryland basketball has promise for 2017-18, even without Melo Trimble

Our preseason outlook on Mark Turgeon’s Terps.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Tournament-Northwestern vs Maryland Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

For the past three seasons, Maryland basketball was powered by Melo Trimble. It was his team and rightly so.

Over three years, he compiled a 79-25 record and led the Terps to three straight NCAA Tournaments, including Maryland’s first Sweet Sixteen appearance since 2003. As Trimble went, so did the Terps. After starting the 2016-17 season 20-2, Maryland floundered and its postseason was over as fast as it began.

Coming off a 24-9 finish, including swift exits from both the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments, and Trimble’s departure, Maryland is ready to usher in a new era. The offense is now in the hands of the three sophomores who stepped in as day-one contributors last season. Now it’s all about how head coach Mark Turgeon decides to deploy the troops.

What’s next for Maryland?

Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter will now lead the Terps’ backcourt, with Cowan reassuming his freshman role as Maryland’s starting point guard. Huerter will return to a guard slot, which he played in high school, with Justin Jackson moving down to small forward.

Jackson returns, after following Trimble into the NBA Draft process, and will have much higher expectations to live up to this season. Jackson has a prototypical professional body, but scouts wanted to see him play more at his natural position with the Terps. Turgeon told reporters at Big Ten media day Jackson would do just that, in addition to still playing some power forward for the team. Anticipation of growth saw Jackson land on the Julius Erving Award watch list, as well as make the preseason all-conference team.

These three now represent Maryland’s nucleus, as the Terps’ top three returning scorers. They will be supported by Maryland’s four-year veterans Michal Cekovsky, Jared Nickens and Dion Wiley. Nickens looked confident handling the ball more than he had in his last three years at Maryland Madness last weekend, while Cekovsky and Wiley are both returning from injury plagued seasons and appear to be close pre-injury form. Wiley looks less explosive than before he tore his meniscus, something expected, but his shot appears to be returning. Turgeon said Cekovsky is about “85 to 90 percent” back to where he was last season, when he was Maryland’s most offensively competent big man, Jackson excluded.

After going 30-8 in games decided by six points or less with Trimble at the helm, now the onus is on the returners to step up in his absence.

An influx of toughness

Maryland struggled to control the glass at times last season, as evidenced by the fact that the trio of Cowan, Huerter and Jackson also represent three of the Terps’ top four rebounders last season. With big men Damonte Dodd, Maryland’s third-leading rebounder, and L.G. Gill both out of eligibility, Turgeon turns to a crop of newcomers and some internal growth to inject some toughness into the team.

Headlining the group is Maryland’s 2017 freshman class, consisting of forward Bruno Fernando and guard Darryl Morsell, top-100 commits in their own right. Fernando made a cameo in the Big Ten preseason media poll, as the 6’10 big man garnered the sole vote preventing Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson from being the unanimous Freshman of the Year pick. Morsell is a physical 6’4 guard who will back up Cowan at the point, having played the position for his AAU team but not in high school.

Maryland also returned to the graduate transfer market, adding Sean Obi to the roster. The 6’9 center missed all of last season, stuck on Duke’s bench, after playing just 10 games in 2015-16. However, before his move to Durham, Obi averaged near a double-double as a full-time starter his freshman year at Rice. It’s unlikely he returns to that type of production, but he gives Maryland another competitor on the boards.

The Terps also activate forward Joshua Tomaic, who redshirted last season. Tomaic appears to have bulked up a bit, and had a decent run with his native Spain in the FIBA U-19 World Cup. He figures to play a role Maryland’s big man rotation this year, and after the Terps had just three active players over 6’9 last year, the height boost helps.

Average expectations

It’s hard to definitively say whether Maryland will be better without Trimble this season. After finishing last season tied for second in the conference, it’s reasonable to expect a drop-off for Maryland after losing its marquee player. The Terps’ preseason expectations aptly reflect the change of the guard.

As a whole, the projections point toward a small step back. The Terps were picked to finish fifth in the conference by the Big Ten media poll, in a tie with Michigan, and have the seventh-highest championship odds, according to BT Powerhouse. Maryland also landed as the No. 41 team in KenPom’s first rankings of the season, good for eighth in the Big Ten, with an expected 20-11 record.

Maryland kicks off the season with an exhibition game on Nov. 2, before officially opening the season against Stony Brook on Nov. 10.