If you haven’t already hit sports critical mass with the culmination of the World Series coming to a close in dramatic fashion, the EPL in full swing, the NFL hitting its midseason stride, college football in the backstretch, and the NBA and NHL seasons in their infancy, then prepare for your cup to runneth over as college basketball kicks off in less than four days.
Last Season – An Upperclassman Renaissance
Before I dive into this preview, I first want to revisit last season’s gem of a championship game while also addressing the unfair criticism college basketball receives for its perceived lack of overall quality. This assertion stems mostly from the scarcity of experienced upperclassmen in Division I. Most of these talented players are pilfered by the NBA before they can develop into experienced college players. This trend is certainly understandable as there are few perks for blue chip college players to remain unpaid, amateur athletes for longer than a few years before the riches and autonomy of the NBA become far too alluring to ignore.
Last year was a bit of a renaissance against this trend, however, as we were treated with not only one of the greatest NCAA Championship games of all time between eventual champion Villanova and North Carolina, and one of the greatest buzzer-beaters of all time by Kris Jenkins, but both teams were led by upperclassman who opted to stay in school and lead their teams to glory.
The Tar Heels were helmed by seniors Brice Johnson, and Marcus Paige – He hit The Shot Before The Shot.
Villanova was led by senior Ryan Arcidiacono – He made The Assist to The Shot, and junior Mr. Jenkins – He hit The Shot.
And while upperclassman dominated and eventually decided the championship game, one-and-done factories (cough… Duke and Kentucky) were dispatched in early rounds by experienced teams like Indiana and Oregon. Take that Jike Calyzewksi.
The 2015-16 season (or at least the NCAA Tournament) was proof positive that a recruiting class of blue chippers and NBA-bound talent is not always enough to win a title. It requires a specific mix of skill and experience, and even then you aren’t guaranteed anything.
Just ask last year’s Maryland Terrapins.
The 2015-16 Terps – What Could Have Been
Entering the 2015-16 season my excitement for Terps basketball was at an all time high. I mean how could I not be after seeing pictures like this one. Like seriously look at that picture. So happy, so innocent, so expectant. Smiles broad, eyes brimming with joy, hearts so full of Maryland pride. Potential abound!
It all began with an incredibly fortuitous offseason. In March, five-star recruit Diamond Stone* chose the Terps over his home-state Wisconsin Badgers in what would be seen as a coup by Turgeon’s staff. In May, Melo Trimble and Jake Layman tested the NBA waters before deciding to return for another year together. Robert Carter Jr then became eligible to suit up after sitting out a year per (bullshit) NCAA transfer rules. And lastly filling out the quartet, Rasheed Sulaimon transferred in after being railroaded by the Dookies halfway through the previous season. After the dust settled, we were looking at a starting five of legitimate NBA talent at every position.
*– IMO the greatest actual name of any college basketball player ever. You could argue for God Shammgod, Tommy Gunn, or even brothers Majestic and Scientific Mapp, but my money is on Diamond.
Once the talent had settled in, next came the deluge of hype and anticipation. First, the Terps received a ludicrously high#3 preseason ranking, then Melo Trimble was awarded Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year, and finally the Vegas odds of winning it all were a juicy 10/1 (i.e. you make $10 for every $1 you bet). Looking back at all of those plaudits you can see that not only had this team been anointed before ever stepping on the court together, but also the amount of pressure placed on them from all those expectations. This team was supposed to win a lot of games and by the end of the season be in the conversation to win the school’s second NCAA title.
Needless to say, the lofty expectations of the preseason were not met. Despite streaking to a 15-1 start, the Terps had a not-so-stellar 10-7 record after the New Year and finished the season 25-8 – good for 3rd in the conference. The Terps backed into the NCAA tournament by losing 5 of their last 8 conference games, leading to a disappointing #5 seed in the Big Dance. After solid wins versus North Dakota State and Hawaii, the Terps were dispatched without much resistance by a dominant Kansas team. And with that, the most touted Terps team in over a decade fell well short of the heavenly expectations laid upon them 9 months prior. The 2015-16 Maryland team is a thorough lesson in predicted outcomes falling well short of actual outcomes. Ahh, what could have been.
Despite ending in disappointment, the 15-16 campaign wasn’t all bad. Here are a few of the exciting high points of the season:
- The team’s first Sweet 16 appearance since 2003
- Second consecutive 27+ win season under Mark Turgeon
- The second season finishing 3rd of better in the Big Ten
- All 5 starters made All-Big Ten Teams: Trimble (2nd), Stone (3rd), Carter, Jr. (HM), Layman (HM), Sulaimon (HM)
- Melo Trimble’s game winner vs. Wisconsin:
- Dan Dakich muttering “Too late” before Trimble stuck a dagger in the Badgers’ eye 🙂
- And lastly, this pump up video the athletic department released prior to our B1G Tournament game against Michigan St. CHILLS.
The Aftermath – What We Lost
In the immediate aftermath of the Sweet 16 ouster, it was clear that the 16-17 Terps would look decidedly different. Of course, seniors Jake Layman and Rasheed Sulaimon had used up all their eligibility and would submit their names for draft consideration. Robert Carter, Jr., Stone, and Trimble had big decisions to make. Stay or go? Carter, Jr. and Stone chose to leave eligibility on the table to take their chances in the Draft.
With his four fellow starters’ deciding their future, Melo Trimble was left with the ultimate choice. Leave for the NBA after two years and be drafted on the fringes of the second round or return for a third year and try to chisel his name next to the All-time Maryland greats. He let us sweat for almost two months before finally deciding one hour before the deadline to return for his junior season. Praise be to SVP and the Mayor of Bentley’s Dave Neal.
The Rebirth – Who is Returning
This offseason the Terps, despite losing 4 starters (and nearly 40% of our statistical output), bring back a solid foundation of 7 players with at least two years of college experience under their belt. There is a glimmer of hope in there! While questions remain about front court depth, Turgeon has done his best to address our needs behind Melo Trimble in the backcourt. Below is the returning cast who will try to prove the doubters wrong:
Below is the returning cast who will try to prove the doubters wrong:
Melo Trimble (OG/PG): With Melo back in the fold, this year’s Terps squad gets immeasurably better. Without him, we are a bottom of the league team (Hi, Rutgers). No other team’s fortunes rest so much on one player like Maryland’s do with Melo. In his third year, with no other upperclassman ahead of him other than Dodd, this is his team, which quite honestly might be the best thing for him in his pursuit of playing at the next level. Mostly known as a quiet introverted type, it’s time for Trimble to break out and lead this team both vocally in the locker room and physically on the court. I expect him to be in the conversation for Big Ten Player of the Year and a lock for the first round if all goes well.
Jaylen Brantley (PG): JBrids played sparingly when he transferred in from JUCO last year, but a full season in D1 play should give him more confidence with his handles and his shot. If given enough space Brantley can hit a spot up jumper, but I wonder if he can expand that role to include a slash and kick aspect that would make us even more dangerous with the number of shooters we have on the wings. If all else fails on the court, his viral meme game is a solid fall back.
Jared Nickens (SG): Nickens had a down sophomore season, but over his first two years he’s shown glimmers that he can be a legitimate long range sniper. He sports a 37% career 3 percentage, which most certainly will creep past 40 this year. I expect his open chances to increase with the return of Dion, and newcomers Ant Cowan and Kevin Huerter drawing would-be defenders away from him.
Dion Wiley(G/F): Last summer, when the news broke that Dion had torn his meniscus and would miss the entire year it was devastating to hear. Now he’s back 100%, and word is he’s going to deliver as a serious slasher/shooter role that Jake Layman filled last year. I don’t expect Wiley to blow the doors off the barn early on, but by mid-conference play, I anticipate he will’ve morphed into an integral cog to making a tournament run.
Damonte Dodd(C): The Dodd Father is now a senior, which is insane to consider, but here he is nonetheless. I’ve never thought of him a leader on the floor, but for lack of a better option he’s our most talented and experienced front court player and will be asked to protect the rim and bang bodies with the best bigs in the Big Ten (PS: I will pray for him when Purdue’s massive duo of 7 footers come to town). His shot blocking ability could make the difference in several conference games, but his poor free throw shooting could be a serious liability late in the 4th quarter.
Michael Cekovsky(C): My outlook on Ceko has always been that he possesses the raw tools to be a solid face up big man, but has never quite put it all together. Hopefully, by Year Three he’s gotten bigger and the game has slowed down for him a bit. With hard offseason work, he could end up being a solid backup option for Dodd. Note: That is if he can recover from these knee and foot injuries that have hampered him this fall.
New Blood – What We’re Gaining
This year’s team will look very, very different than the NBA-destined monolithic lineup of 15-16. What we’re losing in size and experience we’re gaining in pure athleticism and raw potential. Here are the new additions:
LG Gill (PF): Turgeon continues his streak of utilizing the graduate transfer rule to bolster the team. LG Gill, coming by way of Duquesne, is a serious athlete at 6’8″ 225 with elite bounce. Just check this dunk at Maryland Madness a few weeks ago:
He will most certainly guard multiple positions and will be asked to lock down some of the better perimeter players in the conference on a nightly basis. Also, expect him to quickly become a third leader alongside Dodd and Trimble as his 3 years of experience will be handy come tournament time.
Ant Cowan (PG): Anthony Cowan was All-Met Player of the Year at St John’s High School in DC and he’s the gem of this class. He’s a pure PG with great handles, but he also has one of the meanest pull games I’ve seen from a young kid. Just wait till he stops on a dime and drains his first transition 3. You’ll be all in. He will be Trimble’s backup to start the year, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them in the back-court together allowing Trimble to play off the ball, which he has yet to do at Maryland.
Kevin Huerter (PG): Based on Jaylen Brantley’s Snapchat, the team has given Huerter the excellent nickname, “Kevin.” So that’s what I’ll call him from now on. Kevin is a long, 6’7″ sniper who will get immediate looks off the bench and could end up being our best pure shooter as a freshman. On top of Kevn’s 3PT touch, Kevin also possesses not-so-sneaky athleticism. In fact, Kevin can throw down windmill dunks, which is incredible to see. Kevin looks good. I’m excited for Kevin.
Justin Jackson (F): On May 25th, 2016 Melo Trimble withdrew his name from consideration for the NBA draft and decided to return to Maryland. Two days later on May 27th Justin Jackson signed his letter of intent for the Terps. Trimble’s decision was closely linked with Jackson’s who picked the Terps over nearly a dozen other schools. Like Bill Self, Jim Boeheim, and John Calipari, Turgeon threw on his finest Canadian and traveled up north to reel in a top talent in Jackson. The Terps tapped into the fertile pipeline of quality Canadian talent that has spilled across the border in recent years (see: Andrew Wiggins, Tyler Ennis, Jamal Murray, Dillon Brooks, etc.) and in Jackson, we’re getting another pure athlete who can score and defend four positions.
Micah Thomas (F): Don’t know much about him and I’m not going to act like I do. Nor am I going to look at someone else’s preview and just parrot what they say because they don’t really know either. What I can tell you is he’s from Memphis, TN, and that place has really good barbecue I hear. He also went to Huntington Prep in West Virginia, which is Andrew Wiggins alma mater. This is what he looks like ———>
Joshua Tomaic (F): Another individual I know little about other than he’s from Spain, which is cool. Turgeon has not been shy about seeking out international flavors in his recruiting since he arrived. Say what you want about Turgeon as a coach, but it cannot be denied that he plumbs the far reaches of the world in search of talent.
There is no doubt this team has a lot of question marks after the departure of so many great players from last year. Melo Trimble is essentially the only known quantity at this time. All other players can be looked as potentially awesome or potentially disastrous. What I can tell you is that it appears we’ve swapped the uncertainty of our backcourt depth in 2015-16 for a legitimate fear of front court issues in 2016-17. This fear (and the obvious problems it will present) will ultimately lower the ceiling on this team’s potential. We essentially have two true centers in Dodd and Ceko, and beyond those two we have several young, athletic players in Jackson, Gill, and Thomas who are all roughly 6’7″ to 6’9″ and will be asked to guard multiple positions. Couple that with young Ivan Bender breaking his wrist recently, and the problem becomes even more evident. In several games this season we will be severely outmatched in the post. Look for Turgeon to run a lot of small three (or even four) guard line-ups to help neutralize our height disadvantage.
Now despite my slightly discouraged view of our big men, I am conversely extremely excited to see our guard play. Too many times last year we were crippled when Trimble went to the bench for a rest or because of foul trouble. Brantley was a liability all year, Suliamon was a turnover machine, and Varun Ram, despite his tenacity, was just too tiny to be taken seriously. Our offense stagnated for long stretches of time without our only true ball handler. I hope for those issues to be eased immediately by the arrival of Anthony Cowan. He’s a true point guard who will allow Trimble to get much-needed rest at certain points during the game and open looks off the ball (which was essentially impossible last year). On top of that, Kevin Huerter also played point guard in high school and could provide a third ball handler in certain situations.
Now, let’s address what this team should have been really good at last year – three point shooting. Last season, we shot a so-so 36% as a team, making 267 threes. Sulaimon led the starters, making 42% of his deep balls – no one else scratched 35%. I predict that due to our front court deficiencies we are going to lean heavily on guard play to get us through games. I anticipate blowing both the total 3s made and conversion percentage from last season out of the water. Now the question is, will that be enough?
On paper, this team can shoot the lights out. Any combination of Trimble, Nickens, Wiley, Huerter, and Cowan will be raining threes from all over the place all night. Teams will be hard-pressed to scheme against so many pure shooters, but when a cold shooting night comes, and it will come, we might be in serious trouble.
It seems that across the board, pundits and college basketball experts are down on the Terps. The combination of talent that left for graduation and the NBA along with the lack of legitimate big men to fill those holes could indeed spell a down year in College Park. But I am slightly more optimistic. If Trimble plays without fear and leads this team as he’s been anointed to do since signing with us in 2013, and the freshman progress over the course of the year, I think we have a shot at finishing in the top 5 of the Big Ten and grabbing our third straight tournament bid.
Record – 23-9
Big Ten – 11-7 (5th)
NCAA Seed – 7 (Round of 32)
B1G POTY – Melo Trimble
B1G FOTY – Ant Cowan