COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Just two minutes into the second half, Travis Trice's face gave it all away.
Trice was matched up with Maryland guard Melo Trimble, who just had torched the Spartans with five 3s and 21 points (including a crossover step-back beauty at the buzzer that turned Spartans guard Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn into a puddle of human goo) in the first half. Trimble drove left, just a half-step quicker than Trice could match. The Maryland freshman felt a hint of contact, dipped his head, and sold the foul.
Trice turned away from the play. He rolled his eyes and shook his head.
The whistle didn't have a tangible impact. Maryland missed a 3 after the ensuing inbounds play, and anyway Michigan State never got close in UM's thorough 75-59 win. Trice's foul was a minor, forgettable moment. But it said a lot about why the Terps, now 17-2 and 5-1 in the Big Ten, are experiencing the best season of Mark Turgeon's tenure.
In short? Because their point guard is one of the most reliably perplexing offensive threats in all of college basketball.
"He's the straw that stirs the drink for them, there's no question about it," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.
If you want to explain Maryland's success, you have to start with their results on the free throw line. On the season, the Terps attempt 49.1 percent as many free throws as they do field goals, the 10th-highest mark in the country. Most importantly, they knock them down, shooting 75.5 percent as a team.
No one is more adept at this than Trimble: After 19 games, the Maryland freshman's free throw rate is 79.8 percent, the highest on his team and 30th-highest in college hoops. Only a handful of high-major players attempt more free throws than Trimble. Few of them are guards. None of them are freshmen.
On Saturday, the Terps won the free throw line battle once more, earning 22 attempts -- and making 20 -- to Michigan State's 13. Unusually enough, Trimble got to the line just two times. Instead, forward Jake Layman -- currently experiencing a renaissance as a shooting, slashing matchup nightmare on the wing -- led the way with an 11-of-12 night at the line.
Then again, Trimble made success at the free throw line almost beside the point. His first half marked a breakout performance: 21 points, 7-of-11 from the field, 5-of-7 from 3. His one-man demolition of Nairn at the end of the half was sinister, the kind of thing that shuts down public pickup runs. It elevated the Terps to a 40-26 halftime lead.
That first-half barrage also offered a reminder: He's a much better perimeter shooter than he has hinted at in recent weeks. Before Saturday, Trimble had been mired in a major slump. In his first five Big Ten games, the freshman had made just 13 of his 40 attempts from beyond the arc. Despite that, Trimble earned a spot on the Wooden Award midseason Top 25 watchlist -- and Maryland began 4-1 -- precisely because he doesn't need to shoot the ball all that well from the field. At Michigan State on Dec. 30, for example, Trimble went 1-of-8 from 3 … and 12-of-14 from the free throw line. On Jan. 3 against Minnesota, he shot 1-of-8 from 3 again … and went 9-of-13 from the free throw line. His ability to beat defenders off the dribble and force his way into the middle of the lane has kept an otherwise good-but-not-great offense afloat.
There are other factors in Maryland's success, of course, and defense tops that list. Through six games, the Terps are allowing the fewest points per possession in Big Ten play; on Saturday, they held Michigan State to well under a point per trip (until the Spartans knocked down a few shots in garbage time).
There is also the play of Layman, who is having by far his best season in College Park, taking a more assertive role on offense and averaging nearly seven rebounds per game. The Terps have depth and size uncommon to the 2014-15 Big Ten. And though Dez Wells is not Maryland's most efficient offensive threat, he remains a challenging, physical presence in his own right -- and a teammate willing to share a leadership role.
"[I didn't think I would be a leader] coming straight in," Trimble said. "I had to get used to the team. Dez was already on the team, he was basically the leader on the team. Over the summer is where I played dominant point guard, and Dez told me that he was not the own leader on the team, that I was a leader too. And it's starting to become natural for me."
That status is reflected in the Terrapins' play. The ball is always his Trimble's hands; the offense lives and dies by his probing, herky-jerky penetration.
When he's hitting 3s, like he was Saturday, he is borderline unguardable, and his team's offense follows suit. But even when he doesn't make shots, Maryland can rely on its defense and its starting point guard's uncanny ability to make defenders' lives miserable.
"Today, he had one of those games that he's capable of doing," Turgeon said. "Melo will be Melo. And he's going to keep getting better."