One year ago, the Maryland basketball program appeared to be in shambles. The Terrapins were coming off a desultory 17-15 season and had suffered a mass rush for the exits. Five players transferred out and an incoming recruit decommitted. All signs pointed to another losing season, which fed the gathering speculation that head coach Mark Turgeon could soon be out of a job.
On January 29, the Duke basketball program appeared to suffer a major setback. One day after losing at Notre Dame, coach Mike Krzyzewski announced that he was dismissing junior guard Rasheed Sulaimon. That marked the first time in his 35-year career with the Blue Devils that Krzyzewski had jettisoned a player for non-academic reasons. Sulaimon’s dismissal left the program with just eight scholarship players, four of whom were freshmen. The idea of competing for a national championship, much less winning one, seemed far-fetched.
So much for conventional wisdom. Maryland turned out to be one of the biggest surprises of the 2014-15 season, winning 28 games and advancing to the second round of the NCAA tournament. And without Sulaimon, Duke won 17 of its last 18 games, and on April 6 the Blue Devils claimed their fifth national championship.
On Monday, these two programs, which were charter members of the ACC, intersected at another college basketball crossroads when Sulaimon announced that he would play for the Terps next season. This is the latest in a string of good news for Maryland that has arrived over the last six weeks. The first came on March 28, when Diamond Stone, a 6'10" stud from Milwaukee, chose Maryland over his home-state team, Wisconsin. Four days later, freshman point guard Melo Trimble, who was being projected in some quarters as a first-round NBA draft pick, announced he was returning for his sophomore season. Jake Layman, a versatile 6'8" swingman, also bypassed the chance to be drafted. Those events led Maryland to be pegged as a top-five team heading into the 2015-16 season, and they convinced Sulaimon that he could be part of a winning program if he came on board. Now that he has, it would not be surprising to see some experts project Maryland as the preseason favorite to win the 2016 NCAA title.
This is the double-edged sword that will glimmer at Turgeon as the 2015-16 season gets underway. In today’s microwave-like, Twitterized sports culture, high expectations can be a coach’s worst enemy. As it turned out, all those circling sharks did Turgeon a considerable favor last year. He could coach his team and pleasantly surprise the public. This fall, he will not have that luxury. It’s win big, or bust.
To be sure, there are good reasons for those expectations. Not only is Maryland’s roster loaded with quality pieces, but it looks as if they should fit well together. An athlete often makes his biggest improvement between his freshman and sophomore seasons of college, so I expect Trimble to be a stronger, savvier point guard six months hence. Sulaimon has the potential to provide the toughness, scoring, defense and veteran leadership that Maryland had in Dez Wells, a 6'5" senior guard who has exhausted his eligibility. I’m also hearing great things about Robert Carter, a 6'8" transfer from Georgia Tech who combines a sturdy frame with a long-range shooting touch. He will be eligible next season.
It is ironic that Sulaimon should be in effect replacing Wells, because he also transferred to Maryland amidst controversy. In the summer of 2012, Wells had been accused of sexual assault by a female student at his previous school, Xavier. A local prosecutor decided the accusation did not warrant bringing charges, but Xavier expelled Wells anyway. Wells transferred to Maryland, was granted a waiver by the NCAA to play right away and took Xavier to court, where the parties reached a settlement.
Sulaimon’s reputation was likewise sullied by an article published in the Duke student newspaper in March revealing that rumors of sexual misconduct had spurred the university's Office of Student Conduct to conduct an investigation of Sulaimon. The investigation was brief and uncovered no wrongdoing, and no formal allegation has ever been made against him. Yet, with being kicked off the team, having his name dragged through incendiary headlines and watching his former teammates win a championship despite his absence—indeed, apparently benefiting from his absence—it has been a challenging several months for this young man, to say the least.
Sulaimon, and by extension Maryland, did benefit from one piece of luck, however. Because he is on track to get his undergraduate degree from Duke in August, Sulaimon is eligible to play for Maryland right away under the so-called graduate transfer rule, which was passed in 2006. That rule, however, has become very unpopular with coaches and conference commissioners, who are on the verge of expurgating it from the NCAA’s rulebook. Sulaimon was able to make this move just under the wire.
There will be plenty of pitfalls for Sulaimon and his new teammates in the days ahead. First and foremost is the question of Sulaimon’s attitude. Though the former McDonald’s All-American showed flashes of potential during his three seasons in Durham (such as when he scored 14 points off the bench in a 10-point win at Wisconsin on Dec. 8), Sulaimon clashed with Krzyzewski because of his unwillingness to accept a reduced role after Krzyzewski brought in a stellar freshman class. Turgeon says he did his due diligence on Sulaimon (just as he did with Wells) and is hopeful the young man has left his demons behind. If Sulaimon has learned from his mistakes, he has the potential to help the Terrapins make the Final Four. If he hasn’t, he could become a distraction in the locker room.
Injuries are always a capricious possibility. Also, while the Big Ten won’t be quite so top-heavy next season, there are very few easy wins in that league, especially on the road. Sulaimon’s announcement was welcome news in College Park, but the real work begins now. Turgeon knows better than most how often conventional wisdom turns out to be unwise.