In one of the more surprising (and fast) turnarounds in college basketball in recent seasons, the Maryland Terrapins, led by Mark Turgeon, have become a national power just two seasons after five key players decided to transfer from the program on the eve of its transition in the Big Ten.
Seth Allen (Virginia Tech), Nick Faust (Long Beach State), Charles Mitchell (Georgia Tech), Roddy Peters (South Florida) and Shaquille Cleare (Texas) all left the Terrapins after the team went 17-15 in its final ACC season, leaving Turgeon scrambling to put together a formidable roster. Of course, aided by the rise of star freshman point guard Melo Trimble and senior Dez Wells in 2014-15, he was able to lead the Terps to a No. 12 AP ranking and No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, where Maryland beat Valparaiso in the first round before falling to West Virginia in the Round of 32.
Now, Maryland sits at No. 4 in the entire country and has an extremely versatile and deep roster, with one of the toughest starting fives around.
Trimble still leads the way as one of the top slashers in college basketball -- who also has a penchant for clutch plays late in games. Seniors Jake Layman and Rasheed Sulaimon -- a Duke transfer -- along with junior transfer Robert Carter Jr. and freshman sensation Diamond Stone to help take the load off. There are big men galore in College Park, with Damonte Dodd, Michal Cekovsky and even Ivan Bender providing frontcourt depth off the bench while sophomore Jared Nickens and JuCo transfer Jaylen Brantley serve as guard reinforcements.
The Terps have multiple new faces entering the fold this season. Whether it's Sulaimon and Carter (from Georgia Tech) as transfers or Stone (ESPN's No. 6 player in the entire Class of 2015) as a first-year player, they haven't exactly hit their strides yet, though. Close calls early on with Georgetown, Rider and Illinois State, as well as a tough loss in Chapel Hill to North Carolina, displayed the trademark signs of a team still trying to figure how to fit it's many extremely talented pieces together in the same puzzle.
But, an early December win over UConn at Madison Square Garden, in which Trimble scored 25 points (on 14-15 free throw shooting) and Stone added 16, showed just how much potential Turgeon's squad has when it plays well. Considering the preseason loss of blue chip sophomore Dion Wiley to an ACL injury, the former Texas A&M head man has to be pretty happy with how things have gone.
However, he probably wasn't too happy with how his team started Big Ten play a few days ago, as the Terps narrowly escaped Penn State (yes, that Penn State) in College Park after being down double digits in the second half. Down 13 with just over six minutes to play after abysmal shooting for most of the game, Maryland had just a 9.6 percent win probability. Then Diamond Stone, a Milwaukee native who was recruited away from in-state Wisconsin by Turgeon, took over.
The freshman scored a Maryland freshman record 39 points (10-15 shooting, 19-25 from the free throw line) and grabbed 12 rebounds in one of the more impressive performances of the young season, as he singlehandedly (in just 29 minutes, no less) saved his team from what would have been an embarrassing defeat. Now Maryland is 12-1 heading into Saturday's matchup with Northwestern -- the team that was a Dez Wells putback away from completing a shocking road upset last January -- and is looking to rebound from a surprisingly poor performance.
Maryland doesn't blow you away in every statistical category, save for offensive efficiency (KenPom has the Terps' at 16th in the country) and effective field goal percentage (5th nationally), as the Terps aren't particularly great defensively, didn't play a tough non-conference schedule and turn the ball over a lot (248th best in the country). But, Maryland certainly passes the eye test, and does so with flying colors.
The main reason this team is so good is its incredible size across the floor and even on the bench. The Terps are second in the nation in average height (behind just UCF, who has this guy) and fifth in effective height, which is only four spots behind UC-Irvine, which put out the tallest starting lineup in college basketball history. With Stone, Dodd, Cekovsky, Carter and Bender, the Terps have a big man rotation that is unmatched in the Big Ten but also happens to be complemented by one of the nation's top point guards, a future Chandler Parsons and a former Duke Blue Devil.
So, with center Alex Olah out due to a foot injury for the foreseeable future, Saturday night's task is a pretty big one for Northwestern, even with the sudden rise of freshman center Dererk Pardon. Joey van Zegeren, who played Maryland four times during his tenure with Virginia Tech, will also have to help Pardon out with the hulking Terps' front line, but there's more to this game than just the big guys. Here are three important matchups to watch:
1. Dererk Pardon vs. Diamond Stone
Stone, according to KenPom's classifications, is a "go-to guy" for Maryland while Melo Trimble and Robert Carter are only "major contributors." Stone uses over 31 percent of available offensive possessions (22nd most in the country) and takes over 32 percent of the team's shots (31st most) when he's on the floor. So Stone is the No. 1 priority for Northwestern on defense. Stone is also fifth in the country in offensive rebound rate, so Pardon (and van Zegeren) will have his hands full as his opposing freshman is bulkier than he but is also incredibly athletic (watch this) and is not limited to just making plays at the rim.
Pardon, who is playing just his third college game, is giving up a few inches and a couple of pounds to Stone, which will make his challenge of limiting Stone's second-chance opportunities and open lanes to the rim very difficult. But, he is not without his faults, as Turgeon has played him over 25 minutes just once this season (the Penn State game) so he may not hold up well if relied upon for another full game. Also, Pardon needs to draw some early fouls on him to get Cekovsky and Dodd into the game and prevent Stone from developing a rhythm.
2. Bryant McIntosh vs. Melo Trimble
When Maryland eked out a 68-67 win at Xfinity Center over the Wildcats last season, it was because of Trimble, who scored 27 points and forced four steals. He had his way with drawing fouls and converted at the charity stripe, as per usual. McIntosh played well, posting 21 points, but he didn't do a good enough job of keeping Trimble out of the paint. The Maryland native is a good shooter and has a quick trigger, but he feels more comfortable closer to the hoop than far from it. If McIntosh, who looks bigger this season than last, can body Trimble up and stay in front of him, he can at least hope to stop him from controlling the game at the free throw line.
3. Aaron Falzon vs Jake Layman
At forward, it's a matchup of two Boston-area guys, one a freshman and one a senior, who have some similarities in their games. Falzon works outside-in, as his current role in the Northwestern offense is mostly as a perimeter threat in the absence of Vic Law (Falzon has only attempted one two-pointer and one free throw in his last five games). Layman's game is similar. However, Layman is bigger than Falzon and is a key rebounder for Maryland, and does have the ability to get to the rim and either finish with a dunk or get fouled.
Layman's usage has actually dropped each of the last three seasons with the introduction of top recruits into the system, but he seems to be grasping his more complementary role in Turgeon's offense which runs through Trimble and Stone. As a .474/.357/.833 shooter, though, he can't be forgotten about or else he'll run off five or six straight points. Stopping the rest of the Maryland starters is hard enough that if Falzon lets Layman have his way on offense, the Wildcats will have virtually no chance in this game.