When it comes to big-time college basketball, it's always helpful to operate in reality. It's not as easy as it sounds. When you're dealing with college kids during the course of a long season, there's a lot that goes unsaid.
And it's becoming hard to escape the reality that this season's highly touted Maryland men's basketball team has underwhelmed.
The Terps were preseason darlings four months ago, perhaps as hyped as any team in program history. Head coach Mark Turgeon and star point guard Melo Trimble came out of nowhere last year to notch the most regular-season wins in Maryland history. Then the Terps added transfers Robert Carter Jr. and Rasheed Sulaimon to go with freshman phenom Diamond Stone.
With Trimble at the controls, Maryland has certainly looked championship caliber on occasion this season. Heading into the postseason, the point guard had eclipsed 20 points in eight games. He'd dished more than five assists 13 times, a feat he managed only twice last year.
But with the NCAA tournament bearing down on them, Trimble and the Terps have picked an inopportune time to slump.
Maryland lost three of four games in late February, a stint during which Trimble made only 11-of-47 shots from the field and committed 19 turnovers. Tack on a 2-of-12 performance during a win against Purdue Feb. 6, and Trimble shot 22 percent during the course of five straight Big Ten games. Classifying that icy stretch as a slump starts to become generous when it lasts a calendar month.
The good news for Trimble and Co. is that, thanks to their talent, this Maryland program now exists in a new reality. It's one in which March is the only month that matters. No matter how the regular season went, this group of Terps was going to be judged on what it accomplishes when the lights are brightest. That time is still ahead, which means Trimble has a chance to finish what he started, as Maryland enters the NCAA tournament as a five seed in the South Region.
"I think it's the same," the point guard said about his mental outlook. "Last year, we were locked in around this time, and this year, we're locked in as well. You know, towards the end of the season, everything is important now. Everything is going to count. This is where all the marbles come in."
Trimble is as quiet as superstars come, which makes extracting relevant information from him close to impossible. The best indicator of his mindset is his attitude on the floor. Trimble has an infectious smile, and when he's rolling, it lights up his face and energizes everyone around him. Some stars flash a nasty sneer when they're at their best. It's when Trimble grins ear-to-ear that his opponents know they're in trouble.
Perhaps it's Trimble's reticence that has motivated Turgeon to come to his point guard's defense in recent weeks. Fans haven't seen Trimble's teeth much lately. His struggles frequented headlines because, quite simply, they've been newsworthy. The expectations for this Maryland team were gargantuan, and Trimble was a legitimate National Player of the Year candidate.
"Everyone remember this," an emotional Turgeon said in February. "We were 17-15 before he got here, and we're 51-12 since he's been here. Don't forget that guys. I don't. I love that kid."
Turgeon is right, of course. Trimble was mired in the biggest slump of his career. He couldn't hit a shot, yet he was still finding ways to help his team. He was 1-of-14 against Wisconsin Feb. 13 but managed his way to the free-throw line 10 times and racked up six helpers.
While his numbers are down across the board compared to last season, Trimble still leads Maryland in points, minutes, assists, steals and free-throw percentage.
To no one's surprise, Trimble is already showing signs of coming out of it. The Terps split their last two regular-season games, which made it four losses in their last six. But Trimble scored 35 points on 14-of-31 shooting to go with five 3-pointers and eight assists against five turnovers. Not exactly gaudy numbers, but they look awfully good compared to the ugly lines that preceded them.
"I think you guys will see him coming out of his funk here shortly," said reserve guard Varun Ram, the senior typically responsible for shadowing Trimble in practice. "Anytime you have someone that talented, you're not really worried about them getting out of a funk. Anytime he misses four shots or five shots in a row, you still feel like the next one is going in."
There's been no official indication that Trimble is dealing with an injury, though the point guard has spoken at length about the attention he's paid to his body. Last season, it was revealed in February that Trimble had been dealing with back and leg pain for more than a month. Generously listed at 185 pounds and playing 32.5 minutes per game, it would almost be surprising if he didn't have a laundry list of nagging ailments.
"It's been tough, but it's been fun," Trimble said. "I like staying in the game. But from a physical standpoint, it's been tough. I just have to get more treatment."
Whatever the impetus, the downtick in performance was clearly affecting his confidence. High-percentage shots transformed into ugly bricks, and winnable games turned into losses. The Terps just can't have that if they're to salvage a season that once looked like it could be magical. The last time the Terps had a collection of talent like this, they won it all in 2002.
Like this group, that bunch had an eclectic mix of impact players who had been around the block. Like this group, that Terps squad had a handful of guys who were leaders. One of them currently sits about 10 spots down from Trimble on the Maryland bench in assistant coach Juan Dixon, who happened to be the 2002 Final Four's Most Outstanding Player.
Even the most talented teams need a player to carry them through the minefield that is March Madness, which is exactly what Dixon did 14 years ago. And it is exactly what Maryland needs Trimble to do this month if history is to repeat itself. Sometimes reality is that simple.
Issue 219: March 2016