To compete for national title, Maryland basketball must solve chemistry equation

Turbulence and all, the Maryland Terrapins – 14 players with 14 tales -- weather the ups and downs of a college basketball season.

Published on February 26, 2016

For the moment, at least, the Maryland Terrapins were flying high. The plane had settled into a cruising altitude of 37,000 feet, and members of the men’s basketball team were scattered over several rows in the back of the plane, temporarily miles removed from any talk of rankings or postseason projections or the endless analyses of whether they would ever reach their true potential.

Fourteen players from 14 cities, eight states, three countries. Four had transferred in from other schools. They all came from different backgrounds. At least a handful would surely be gone at season’s end, their sights redirected on professional careers. But for now, they were all on the same trip together, turbulence and all.

MARYLAND'S MARCH:

About this series: The Maryland men's basketball team faces high expectations as one of the nation's top-ranked squads. Washington Post reporter Rick Maese and photographer Toni L. Sandys go behind the scenes this season to see what makes a high-level program tick and what it takes to fulfill potential.

Part 1: For Maryland basketball, expectations are great. Now for the hard part.

Part 2: For Turgeon and his Terps, preparation is key -- and every night is movie night

Part 3: Maryland's fortunes are tied to Melo Trimble and Jake Layman they-almost lost bot

Part 4: Mark Turgeon, the man who holds the Terps%u2019 operation together

On the early-February plane ride to Nebraska, most dozed and listened to music. Players who dared crack open the window shade saw blizzard-like conditions. The plane touched down, and one by one, the players gingerly walked down the steps. Assistant coach Bino Ranson was at the bottom, extending a hand.

“It’s all ice down here,” he said. “Be careful.”

There were no other planes landing at the Lincoln, Neb., airport that night. It was 30 degrees, winds measured 33 mph, and the huge plumes of snow looked like a billowy white curtain whipping across the tarmac.

Maryland assistant coach Bino Ranson, left, and athletic trainer Matt Charvat, right, help the players navigate the icy tarmac after landing in Lincoln, Neb., on Feb. 2 for a game the next night

Players loaded onto an idling bus, as Coach Mark Turgeon helped student managers move bags off a luggage cart. When he stepped on the bus, he called out to his team, “Don’t worry, we got it under control, guys.”

[Maryland’s March, Part 4: Turgeon holds it all together]

Bound together by basketball, the players spend hours upon hours together, day after day: team meals, weightlifting, practice, study hall, locker room, training room, film room. Their apartments are clustered together in the same building, and players have been carefully matched with roommates, typically younger players paired with veterans. In their downtime, they’re still together, playing video games or watching basketball on television. They’ll go on at least 13 road trips together, inseparable by design. The entire season amounts to an experiment in team-building, with a strict March deadline.

As the Terps stared down the back half of their Big Ten schedule, something remained amiss. The on-court product still didn’t look exactly like the promising preseason blueprint.

“In college, it’s not always the most talented team that wins,” senior Rasheed Sulaimon observed. “It might be the team that likes each other, that gets along, that has the best chemistry. We knew we’d be a talented bunch, but we’re still figuring things out, trying to figure out everyone’s personality, strengths, weaknesses, what makes them go.”

For Turgeon, the roster construction was hardly organic. Collectively, the divergent skill-sets and personalities presented a puzzle that had to be assembled quickly. The coaching staff had to meld a soft-spoken leading scorer with a vocal back-court mate; a confident but unripe freshman center with veterans who had spent years helping build the program; quiet cornerstones with natural-born leaders still new to the team. Down the home stretch of the regular season schedule, each was still finding his respective role.

Melo Trimble, center, celebrates his 21st birthday at a steakhouse that was otherwise deserted because of blizzard-like weather the night before the game at Nebraska.

After a quick stop at the hotel, the bus headed to a downtown steakhouse, where the Terps had a team meal scheduled the night before their game. Because of the weather, the restaurant was empty when they arrived.

Before stepping off the bus, each player turned over his cellphone to a team manager. It’s a strict Turgeon rule: Team meals are for conversation and building chemistry, not texting and checking Snapchat. And so they sat around a table talking, cracking jokes and devouring ribs and bruschetta appetizers. When sophomore Melo Trimble’s steak came out, the server mispronounced the star point guard’s name, calling out, “Meelow? Meelow?” and the entire team broke into laughter.

“In college, it’s not always the most talented team that wins. It might be the team that likes each other, that gets along, that has the best chemistry.”

—Maryland senior Rasheed Sulaimon

[Maryland’s March, Part 3: Trimble, Layman returned to evolving roles]

Trimble had turned 21 that day, and when dinner was over, restaurant staff brought out a sorbet with fruit and a flickering LED candle as his teammates and coaches sang “Happy Birthday.”

“Yay, Meelow!” they yelled. “Make a wish!”

Trimble offered a slight grin, not relishing the attention.

It was past 9:30 p.m. when the Terps returned to the hotel. The team gathered in a ballroom for a stretching session , lying on foam rollers, pulling rubber bands, rubbing electric buffers over their muscles. The whole time they talked about girls, roommates stealing food, bathroom smells, typical college fare. They’re the things that have nothing to do with basketball — but that might have everything to do with building a team.

The Terrapins huddle following film sessions and practices, a routine typically led by senior Rasheed Sulaimon or junior Robert Carter Jr.

A family, with tough love

Every year and for every team, building team chemistry is a process. Some of it carries over from the previous season and returning players. The process begins in earnest during the summer, when players aren’t micromanaged by coaches, when classroom demands are lighter and when basketball activities resemble pickup games.

The Terrapins weren’t together as a full group until September, and by the time the team started formal practices in October, players were still getting a feel for each other’s personalities. The Terps traveled to Philadelphia for a preseason scrimmage against Villanova, a talented squad that would later rise to No. 1 in the polls. The Terps were heady, buoyed by offseason attention and preseason predictions, but the scrimmage was an eye-opener. They didn’t play as a team. They were selfish, failed to spot teammates and struggled to communicate. Fortunately for them, it was just a scrimmage, and from those shaky first steps, a season-long tradition was born.

Junior Robert Carter Jr. began calling players-only huddles following film sessions and practices. “Let’s link up,” he says, and players gather in a circle, arms wrapped around each other. They continued the practice throughout the season. Usually Carter or Sulaimon speaks first, but anyone can pipe up, sharing encouragement or concerns, discussing game plans or goals.

“It’s a chance to make sure everyone’s on the right page, focused on the right things,” Carter said. “Keep everyone’s head into it, you know. If we don’t have those little meetings, we don’t know what everyone’s thinking.”

[Maryland’s March, Part 2: For the Terps, every night is movie night]

While Trimble and senior Jake Layman entered the season as respected veterans, Carter and Sulaimon quickly emerged as vocal leaders, much more comfortable doling out advice, praise or criticism. Sulaimon transferred from Duke, having been dismissed from the Blue Devils two months before they won a national title last spring. As a senior for the Terps, he was all too aware that this season represented his last chance.

Guard Rasheed Sulaimon lifts freshman center Diamond Stone in celebration of the Terrapins’ win at Nebraska. Sulaimon, who transferred from Duke before the season, quickly emerged as a vocal leader for Maryland.

“Initially, I think Rasheed kind of waited his turn,” assistant coach Cliff Warren said. “He said, ‘All right, this is not necessarily my team; I’m a new piece to this puzzle, let me figure out where my niche is going to be.’ ”

On game day in Lincoln, the Terps had breakfast, a team film session and then boarded a bus for a midday shoot-around. Toward the end, Turgeon had the players split into two teams for a playful shooting contest. Sulaimon’s side lost, and the carefree contest turned serious when he wasn’t happy with a teammate’s effort late in the competition.

“Come on!” he barked. “It’s about finishing. It’s about not quitting. It’s about building good habits.”

“I’m not trying to be mean,” he’d explain later, “but I just feel it’s my job as an older guy to point those little things out. When you let those little things pile up, that’s when you see great teams lose games they shouldn’t lose.”

[Maryland’s March, Part 1: After an offseason of great expectations, the hard part begins]

Following lunch back at the hotel, Mark Bialkoski, the team’s video coordinator, took the elevator to the fifth floor and knocked on room 505.

“Hey, ’Sheed.” he said. “Ready?”

The blinds were closed, and the TV was tuned to ESPN. Sulaimon took a seat at the desk, and Bialkoski set his laptop down and began playing video of the Cornhuskers. Sulaimon instantly spotted a guard who liked to drive the lane.

“You going to Jake’s room after this?” he asked Bialkoski. “I think Jake will be good on him. If he pulls up, he’ll at least contest the shot, make him shoot over a 6-9 hand. We just gotta sacrifice the body and let ’em run right into you.”

Coach Mark Turgeon congratulates guard Melo Trimble following the victory at Nebraska. “Be positive,” Turgeon told players after reminding players the mistakes they overcame in the game.

Later that night, after Maryland had pulled off an emotional 70-65 win, Sulaimon burst into the locker room and began congratulating his teammates. “I love your energy, baby!” he said to one of the young benchwarmers. “I love your minutes!” he shouted to a second-teamer. He walked over to the white board and wrote “Every win counts.” When he saw Diamond Stone, he wrapped the freshman center around the legs and lifted him into the air.

Because of the hostile environment, the road victories are always feel sweeter, and because players feel so outnumbered, the Terps bond together even more closely. The entire room was boisterous, and when Turgeon walked in to address his squad, everyone clapped.

“All right, let’s think about everything we overcame,” the coach said. “We had tremendous foul trouble. We had 13 turnovers in the first half. We really weren’t making jump shots.”

The list went on. The Terps had won again despite their mistakes.

“Guys, let’s get out of here,” Turgeon said. “Be positive about Nebraska. Let’s get back to the hotel and eat.”

The players came together.

“Love you all,” Sulaimon said. “ ‘Family’ on three. One-two-three . . .”

“Family!” they shouted.

Andrew Terrell, back, jokes with Jared Nickens on the Terrapins’ flight back from Lincoln, Neb.

Coming together, falling apart

While basketball dictates every part of the Terps’ daily schedules, they find ways to build in breaks for themselves. For Carter, that means more basketball. Earlier in the month, after a big win over No. 18 Purdue in which Carter scored 19 points, Turgeon told the entire team: “Listen to me: We’re gonna take tomorrow off. I don’t want you guys thinking about basketball. I don’t want you around basketball. I want you taking the day off.”

The next day, Carter watched the first half of the Super Bowl with his teammates and then headed to Xfinity Center to shoot. A week or so later, on the team’s next day off, Carter was headed that way again, leaving his apartment around 7:50 p.m. and crossing a small bridge to campus.

“It’s a cold walk today,” he said.

Carter wore headphones to keep his ears warm. It was 28 degrees out, and piles of snow from the recent blizzard were still scattered in the parking lot. As he walked into the arena and made his way to the locker room, he said, “Now I gotta let my body thaw out.”

Robert Carter Jr. shoots by himself at Xfinity Center. He took more than 350 shots over the course of an hour at a recent solo workout.

Mike Williams, one of the student managers, was waiting as always to rebound. Carter started with short hooks. He shot from the elbow and then worked his way around the perimeter. He did some catch-and-shoot jumpers and then some post moves, complete with pivots and fakes against imaginary defenders. After about 15 minutes, he was breathing heavily. After 20, he was sweating.

Even though he sat out last season as a redshirt transfer, following two years at Georgia Tech, Carter entered his junior season as a team leader, both for his work ethic and his positive attitude. He had the ears of teammates and coaches alike, a bonding agent who brought everyone together.

Still, he valued these solo workouts. On the court, Williams kept retrieving the ball, whipping out quick passes. He broke into a sweat, too. The arena was quiet, each dribble echoing through the Xfinity hallways. Over the course of an hour, Carter put up more than 350 shots. “This is for the game,” he finally said to himself, standing at the free throw line, taking a deep breath. Swish. Arms raised, he walked off the empty court.

Terrapins guard Jaylen Brantley rises for a shot in a home game against Wisconsin on Feb. 13.

Later that week, the stakes were higher. The Terps had risen to No. 2 in the national polls, largely thanks to their tenacious defensive play, and were riding a 27-game winning streak on their home court entering a rematch against Wisconsin.

At the conclusion of the team’s pregame film session, the keys were projected on a screen: communicate and get through screens, drive the ball and attack the basket, box out and rebound.

“Any questions?” Turgeon asked.

Coaches left their seats and walked toward the door. The players, meanwhile, gathered in a circle at the front of the room, arms draped around each other’s shoulders.

“We know what we need do,” Carter said. “We’ve played this team already. We know what they got. Come out ready to play, man. Three home games left for the seniors. We got an opportunity to control our destiny, and win this conference. So every game counts.”

Maryland players watch as a Wisconsin takes a free throw after a technical foul given to the Terrapins’ Diamond Stone for slamming an opponent’s head against the court. Maryland would go on to lose the game, 70-57, and Stone would be suspended by Coach Mark Turgeon for the following game at Minnesota.

Six hours later, players trickled off the Xfinity Center court stunned, eyes glazed and composure crushed. They were a squad still learning how to win as a team, but in a 70-57 loss to the Badgers, they most assuredly lost as one. Midway through the game, Stone, the talented and impetuous freshman, slammed an opposing player’s head against the court, an emotional blunder that would cost him a one-game suspension from Turgeon.

Players scattered after the game, processing the loss in their own ways. The Terps have a players-only text message group, and before long, phones began lighting up with hope, if not certainty.

A ‘much-needed business conversation’

Turgeon sensed something was wrong. His players should have been getting more comfortable with each other with each passing game. But as February wore on, the Terps found themselves in the midst of a two-game losing streak, after losing on the road to a Minnesota team that hadn’t posted a victory in two months. His star player couldn’t find the basket — Trimble had seven field goals and 31 misses in a four-game stretch — and outsiders were beginning to wonder whether the Terps would squander all the talent he had assembled.

Jake Layman and Rasheed Sulaimon (0) talk on the court during the game against Wisconsin.

“We’re not ourselves,” Turgeon said after the loss in Minneapolis.

“We have to get our continuity back, our chemistry back,” Sulaimon said.

In the midst of all this, Turgeon called his players together following an afternoon practice in mid-February. He instructed them to grab folding chairs and sit in a circle on the court. The coach had tried a variety of team-building tricks over the years, but this was suddenly more urgent. The Terps gathered similarly early in the season, a meeting in which players shared their goals for year, both on and off the court. Each was then assigned a teammate and tasked with keeping tabs on his progress throughout the season. Turgeon felt it was past time for some accountability.

Seated on the court in an otherwise empty arena, everyone spoke, coaches and players alike. They reminded each other of their goals, theorized why they’d fallen short of some and made promises to help reach others. It wasn’t especially emotional — more of a “much-needed business conversation,” as one player called it.

“Any time we have a big rift or difference of opinion, the healthiest way to deal with it is to sit down and have a conversation,” Sulaimon said. “We think of our team as a family. Families face adversity, yes, but they also work through their problems because they trust one another.”

The Terps left with an understanding that, as the season was winding down, they had to take ownership if they hoped to forge an identity built on something more than promise.

From left, Jaylen Brantley, Robert Carter Jr. and Melo Trimble watch the final moments of the loss to Wisconsin. They would lose the next game as well, at struggling Minnesota, prompting what one player called a %u201Cmuch-needed business conversation.%u201D

“I think that was a meeting that will pay dividends,” Turgeon said.

The coach insisted he wasn’t worried. He’d always known this season’s puzzle wouldn’t be put together overnight. “Every team’s different,” he explained. “This one took a little longer because we added some pieces, added some pieces late -- three new starters to the starting lineup. It probably took a little longer, but it wasn’t from lack of effort.”

The players were trying to do their part. Midway through conference play, they started a new tradition. The night before home games, the Terps visited a local restaurant and shared a players-only meal. Carter would research dining options, and Kyle Tarp, the team’s director of basketball performance, would call the restaurant to arrange payment and make sure the dietary restrictions were honored, including no-soda and no-alcohol policies. Before they beat Iowa, the players went to Carolina Kitchen. Before Ohio State, Benihana.

The night before facing Michigan in a game that suddenly felt critical, Carter picked Masa Hibachi in Silver Spring for the Saturday night players-only dinner. Just three Terps have cars — Sulaimon, Kent Auslander and Trevor Anzmann — so others piled into Ubers.

At the restaurant, the Terps took up two full tables as a chef cooked in front of them. There was no lamenting their recent performances or prepping for Michigan’s offense. The closest they came to basketball was when a chef flipped zucchini through the air and senior Varun Ram managed to catch it in his mouth.

The meal was another ritual in a long season together, but for all the team dinners and video games and hangout time, the Terps needed the off-court relationships to translate into more consistent on-court performances. Friendships are just a byproduct of the basketball season; Maryland’s goal remains a national title.

Players and coaches on the Maryland bench cheer during the 86-82 win over Michigan that snapped a two-game losing streak that dropped the Terps from No. 2 to No. 10 in the Associated Press rankings.

Returning to form

The doors at Xfinity Center opened 90 minutes before tip-off, and as students raced down to their seats, only one player was on the floor. For days, Trimble’s teammates had told him to keep shooting, to keep his head up, but he knows positive words alone can’t break a slump.

He practiced jumpers from 15 feet out. Then he moved to the elbow. Then the corners. Then beyond the arc. He moved from spot to spot, taking feeds from a team manager. He launched more than 75 shots in all and drained 14 straight three-pointers late in his session. He felt ready.

Five weeks after a loss at Michigan, the rematch was a step in the right direction. Trimble was 3 of 10 with seven turnovers, but his 14 points were his most in two weeks. Four Terps scored in double digits, led by Carter’s 17.

The locker room was an even mix of joy and relief. “So we’re back?” Sulaimon said to Trimble as the guards slapped hands. When everyone was finally in place, Turgeon stood at the front of the room.

“All right, all right, that’s what they call a good mental-health win,” he said. “Mentally, we’ll be a lot more relaxed coming off a win. . . . Only thing I didn’t like in today’s game was in the second half we had a look in our eye that I didn’t like. Guys, eight days ago we were 22-3, second in the country. We all believe. We believe, right? We had a bad 10 minutes against Wisconsin, a terrible night [in Minnesota], which happens. But that’s behind us. We’ve gotta believe. We are who we are. Guys, we’re a heck of a basketball team. I can’t have those looks, all right?”

Diamond Stone, suspended for the loss at Minnesota, celebrates the win over Michigan with Rasheed Sulaimon.

As he does after every win, Turgeon circled the locker room to individually congratulate each player. When he reached Trimble’s locker, he paused and smiled. “Welcome back,” Turgeon said.

With three games to go before the conference tournament, the Terps had fallen to a season-low No. 10 in the Associated Press poll but felt they’d emerged from their biggest challenge intact, maybe stronger. Adversity can crack some teams, but it can galvanize the better ones.

“I don’t think this could’ve happened at a better time, us hitting this valley, hitting this low point,” Turgeon said. “It didn’t happen in December, and it didn’t happen in January. It happened right when perhaps we needed it. Lose when you have time to fix everything and still accomplish your goals. You hate losing, sure, but this is what will prepare us for the NCAA Tournament. I don’t know if I could’ve scripted it any better.”

There’s no exact timeline on players gelling. Some teams come together in December, some in March and some not at all. As February wound down, time was running out for the Terps to start clicking. After losing Saturday at No. 20 Purdue, 83-79, Maryland had suddenly dropped three of four. The team inched closer to the Big Ten tournament hoping its best days were waiting around the corner.

“There’s still room to grow,” Sulaimon said. “We’re not done yet. I think we’re on the right track.

“The best teams have a couple of things in common: They execute, and they enjoy playing with each other. I think we’re on that path.”

Robert Carter Jr., leads Coach Mark Turgeon into the locker room after what Turgeon called “a good mental-health win” over Michigan.

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