For this year’s Maryland basketball team to be as successful as previous incarnations, the team needed plenty of things to go right, and they did.
Three freshman starters—Anthony Cowan, Kevin Huerter and Justin Jackson—looked like veterans more often than not. Melo Trimble was always there in crunch time. The Terps pulled through in dire situations more often than expected of an inexperienced team so unfamiliar with each other.
There was a weird togetherness about this team that was missing last season, and although it’s tough to quantify, it’s also tough to quibble with the results. Hardly anybody saw this coming in November.
Before Maryland opened its season, head coach Mark Turgeon openly discussed similarities between this year’s team and the 2014-15 one. Although there weren’t a ton of known quantities on the roster, the coach raved about the Terps’ chemistry and said he thought they could surprise some people this season.
The team from two years ago was picked to finish 10th in the Big Ten in the program’s inaugural year in the league, according to the conference’s preseason media poll. Instead, the Terps finished second, going 14-4 in Big Ten play.
This year, after losing four starters from the 2015-16 “super team,” the same poll placed Terps placed sixth. Once again, however, Maryland rolled to a second-place finish, finishing the regular season with a 24-7 overall record, with a 12-6 mark in Big Ten play that includes a 7-2 road record.
“Sometimes I think people just think you’re supposed to win,” Turgeon said after Saturday’s 63-60 win over Michigan State. “You’re not supposed to win. You have to go out there and get it done, and we went out there and got it done 24 times.”
Trimble, the common denominator on the 2015 and 2017 teams, deserves plenty of credit for that. The junior was there when his name was called. He led the Terps with 17 points per game and delivered five game-winning baskets in the final 30 seconds, with none more incredible than Saturday’s last-second triple against the Spartans.
“Think about where we were before Melo got here. Think about it, guys,” Turgeon said. “We won a lot since, so I’m really happy for him. Everything’s on his plate. Three freshmen, everything’s on his plate. ... I’m just so happy for him.”
But this team didn’t reach 24 wins on Trimble’s strength alone. The Terps needed, and received, contributions from all across the roster. All three freshmen were viable starters from day one. Senior Damonte Dodd was a consistent contributor. Reserves Ivan Bender, L.G. Gill, Jaylen Brantley and Jared Nickens had their moments. Michal Cekovsky and Dion Wiley were also effective at times, but battled injuries all season.
“When the year starts, you’re thinking Ceko is gonna be a big part of what you do. You’re thinking Dion’s going to be a big part of what you do, and they’re not,” Turgeon said. “You have to rely on three freshmen. It’s so hard, guys. It’s so hard to win, and we’ve made it look easy these last three years around here.”
Of course, it’s not like Maryland cruised to all 24 of those wins. Some of those victories required furious comebacks, some needed last-second heroics, and some were much more hard-fought than they needed to be. That trend started in the season opener and continued all year long.
“[We] were down down six with five to play versus American,” Turgeon said. “Anybody think we were gonna go 24-7?”
Maryland skated through non-conference play 12-1 thanks in part to one-point wins over Georgetown, Kansas State and Oklahoma State, plus an overtime victory against Richmond. Playing only the 183rd-toughest nonconference schedule in the country, according to KenPom, helped too. The Terps weren’t always so lucky in Big Ten play, letting the Nebraska and Purdue games slip away. They hit a three-game losing skid just last week, but pulled themselves out of the ditch. Even in a year where the conference didn’t have a top-tier squad, second place is worth getting excited for.
For the moment, Maryland’s roller coaster of a season has eased into the station. The Terps won’t play again until Friday night in the Big Ten quarterfinals. A break like this allows them to regroup before the postseason enters full swing.
“We feel great,” Trimble said. “After this one, we did some things we don’t normally do. We danced in the locker room, just to give us confidence and we can feel relief now.
Maryland’s postseason results will ultimately define this team in the long run, but it’s still worth appreciating what’s already unfolded. Plenty of question marks surrounded the Terps before the season, and they answered most of them. Even Turgeon admits the team’s upside is limited, especially without Cekovsky in the middle, but this group has thrilled fans all year and hopes to keep that going.
“I’ve always enjoyed coaching, but this is one of the most coachable teams I’ve ever had,” Turgeon said. “Now we have our swagger back and we’re feeling better about ourselves heading into the postseason.”