Melo Trimble’s only appearance inside North Carolina’s Smith Center came during an AAU tournament more than five years ago, when the environment was considerably less hostile than what he’ll encounter Tuesday night and the stakes considerably lower.
Then, Trimble was a baby-faced teenager trying to make a name for himself on the preps circuit.
This time, Trimble will have the benefit of back-court mate Rasheed Sulaimon to lean on. Last week, Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon said the duo has the potential to be the best back court in the country.
That notion will be tested by Tar Heels all-American point guard Marcus Paige, who is expected to play after missing the first three weeks of the season because of a broken hand.
Paige “can do it on both ends: play defense, score, get his teammates involved. I watched him a lot last year,” Trimble said. “I know a lot of people are saying the same thing about me, like, what’s it going to be like for him to play against me. I know he’s going to bring his A-game, just like I’m going to bring my A-game.”
A year ago, as a freshman, Trimble might have been rattled at the prospect of taking on Paige.
This season’s maturity has come partly from natural growth and partly from mentorship by Sulaimon, the transfer from Duke who has plenty of experience playing on Tobacco Road.
The bonding between Trimble and Sulaimon continued last week in the Cancun Challenge, where they carried the Terrapins to a close win over Illinois State and a blowout victory over Rhode Island in the tournament championship game.
Trimble averaged 16 points in the two games and finished 7 for 7 from the field with 17 points against Rhode Island, adding six rebounds, four assists and three steals.
Following a string of tentative performances to open the season, he was named the tournament’s most valuable player after responding to the urges of coaches and teammates, including Sulaimon, to be himself.
“Energy, leadership and defense. I see how much he takes pride in playing defense,” Trimble said of the intangibles Sulaimon has added to the team. “That’s something I have to get used to.”
For his part, Sulaimon laughed off a question about splitting MVP honors with Trimble, calling his younger teammate one of the best guards in the country.
But Sulaimon arguably has been Maryland’s most consistent player through six games, averaging 11.2 points.
He has made 12 of his 24 three-point attempts and has 21 assists against nine turnovers . He also has emerged as a respected voice in the locker room, working with Trimble to set the pace for a roster packed with NBA talent.
“Melo is an easy guy to play with,” Sulaimon said last week. “He’s not that vocal, but he leads by example, and when he says something, everyone listens. My relationship with him has grown tremendously.”
While Trimble and Sulaimon combined for just 14 points on 4-for-13 shooting in Saturday’s 80-63 win over Cleveland State, they finished with a combined nine assists and only one turnover apiece.
Such ball security will be difficult to replicate against Paige and company.
Paige is North Carolina’s best scorer and defender, but it remains to be seen how effective he’ll be in his first game back.
His injury occurred in his non-shooting hand, which Turgeon said likely would have allowed him to practice and condition his body while recovering.
“It was his off-hand,” Turgeon said. “He’s probably been practicing; he’s probably in good shape. It wasn’t an ankle or knee. If he’s playing, I expect him to play starters’ minutes. He just adds more depth to an already deep team.”
Turgeon blared music by artists Future and Drake during practice Monday in an attempt to simulate the noise inside Smith Center, hoping it will help the team avoid the communication breakdowns they endured during a chaotic home victory over Georgetown earlier this season.
Trimble scored 17 of his 24 points in the second half of that game, and Sulaimon hit the go-ahead three-pointer with just more than a minute remaining.
Since Suilaimon’s transfer from Duke in August, part of the tandem’s developing bond has come off the court, where they spend hours playing a FIFA soccer video game at the apartment they share.
Trimble declared Monday that he always wins against Sulaimon, but the competition between the teammates stops there.
If Maryland is to live up to expectations this season, it needs the two of them working together.
“He’s been through it, when he was at Duke; I’m new to it,” Trimble said. “So he just talks to me a lot about being a leader, about being a better point guard. He gives me confidence.”