Wednesday December 31st, 2014

This isn’t the deepest year of Big Ten basketball. This isn’t the most talented team Tom Izzo has coached at Michigan State. And Maryland’s 68-66 win over the Spartans in East Lansing doesn’t mean that all of the Terrapins’ problems are in the past, but there was no better way for them to start conference play.

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Maryland’s welcome to the Big Ten, which had been the toughest conference in the country according to KenPom.com for the past four seasons, was suitably a slugfest. The teams finished the first half with a football score -- the Terrapins led 17-14 -- and only managed 134 points combined in 50 minutes. But the game was not without its entertainment value.

Dez Wells returned to the starting lineup for the first time since suffering a wrist fracture in late November. He had played in Maryland’s previous game (a 72-56 win over Oakland), but only for 22 minutes. On Tuesday night, he logged 40. He only shot 35.7 percent from the floor, but that was par for the course in this game: Maryland shot 33.3 percent and Michigan State shot 32.3 percent. He also turned the ball over six times, but grew more comfortable as the game progressed. By the end of regulation, he was confident enough to hit this highlight, game-tying three-pointer with two seconds left.

And in the second overtime, he answered any lingering questions about his health with this breakaway jam.

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But Maryland (13-1) learned two things about itself that are more meaningful than Wells’ return. He was going to get healthy eventually. First, the Terrapins learned that they could win a different style basketball game against a solid opponent. So far, they’ve primarily relied on their offense, which is 19th in adjusted efficiency, but against Michigan State (9-5), they found a way to win despite the poor shooting. In a league with three top-25 efficiency defenses, slow shooting nights are going to come. Maryland cleaned up the boards, out-rebounding Michigan State 52-36, and won the free-throw line, outscoring the Spartans 26-19.

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And second, the Terps learned that they can lean on Melo Trimble in late-game situations. Trimble also had a terrible shooting night, going 2-for-13 from the floor and 1-for-8 from the beyond the arc, but he continued to draw fouls and finished with 17 points largely because of his 12-for-14 effort from the charity stripe. Trimble has helped to carry the offensive load while Wells was injured, and although Wells’ highlights will be remembered from this matchup, Trimble’s late-game calm secured the win.

There are some concerns about Maryland’s youth, but the Terps aren’t totally reliant on freshmen. Among players using more than 16 percent of their possessions, just two are freshman: Dion Wiley and Trimble. They also rely heavily on three seniors (Wells, guard Richaud Pack and forward Evan Smotrycz), a sophomore (forward Damonte Dodd) and a junior (forward Jake Layman).

The Terrapins may not have what it takes to steal the Big Ten away from the favorite, Wisconsin, but this is no time to worry about how they finish. For now, after a stormy offseason, it’s enough to know that their strong non-conference season wasn’t a fluke. Maryland basketball is ready for the Big Ten.

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