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MELO TRIMBLE WILL take Maryland's final shot. He knows it. Northwestern knows it. Every one of the 17,144 onlookers inside College Park's Xfinity Center knows it. Even if this mid-January contest is still in doubt, locked at 48-48 with 16 seconds left, this much is no mystery.
As the sophomore point guard shakes past two defenders, banners of Terrapins past -- John Lucas, Len Bias, Juan Dixon-hang from the rafters, an ever-present whisper of the heights this team used to reach. Trimble pulls up and releases -- one more big-time attempt in a young career filled with them -- and watches as it falls short.
If the wayward 3-pointer rattles him, though, his face does not betray it. He's all calmness and Zen. On Maryland's first overtime possession, he takes his place, again, just behind the arc. He darts through five Northwestern defenders, lifts a floater into the basket, then falls to the floor, a tangle of limbs. The whistle blows. And-1.
It will be, arguably, just the third-most dazzling play he pulls off in overtime, a pair of no-look assists still to come, to help the Terps fend off this feisty Northwestern troupe. But upon hitting the floor, he does not bump his chest or yell or grandstand. Trimble, with his frosted-tip hair inspired by Odell Beckham Jr.'s, breaks into an easy smile.
Even at this crucial moment, he is quiet. Oftentimes, he's too quiet for his team's own good, the byproduct of an acute strain of shyness he's been fighting all his life. If all Trimble were asked to do for the Terrapins was score points and help his teammates do the same, he'd happily oblige.
But Trimble plays for one of the best teams in the country, one that is battling for a Big Ten title, and for the first time in what seems like a very long time, Maryland has a deep tournament run in its sights. Which is why the Terrapins are asking him to do more, to lead. Because the same point guard dubbed the "happy assassin," the one Steph Curry said this month reminds him of himself in college, is so reserved, and can be so leadership-averse, that Trimble's biggest obstacle just might be himself.
MARYLAND BASKETBALL HAS long been defined by saviors who have rescued the program from itself: Gary Williams, who in 1989 returned to salvage his alma mater, still reeling from Bias' death and Lefty Driesell's resignation, then Bob Wade's blatant disregard for rules that brought down the NCAA hammer; Walt Williams, the forward who stayed with the Terps to see them through two years of sanctions; Dixon, a decade later, who gritted his way to a Maryland title.
Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that Trimble has already reached messianic status among the Maryland faithful, with the Terps 32-1 at home (through Feb. 12) since his arrival. After its first and only national championship in 2002, the program careened off a cliff for the better part of the next decade -- from 2004-05 to 2013-14, the Terps missed seven of 10 NCAA tournaments. Enter Trimble, who arrived in College Park from just 30 minutes down 495, in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, as a good, nibbling on great, prospect.
"Last year everyone expected me to save us," Trimble says. "I'm supposed to be the best player from the area, I was a McDonald's All-American, so people were expecting me to change the program around, and I didn't have any idea how I was going to do that."
He figured it out, though, steering the Terps to a program-best 26 regular-season wins behind a team-leading 16.2 points per game. As a sophomore, he's guided them to a top-10 ranking every week of the 2015-16 season and earned himself a spot on the Wooden Award's midseason watch list. Trimble didn't just come in and stanch the bleeding; he gave the place a life-changing transfusion -- not to mention visions of glory that don't star Dixon tackling Lonny Baxter nearly 15 years ago.
"Is he a savior of the program?" fifth-year coach Mark Turgeon asks himself. He pauses, mentally riffling through all the ways Trimble has jump-started Maryland back to life in his 18 months in College Park. "Well, we've been pretty darn good since he got here."
There is no point guard in the country more adept off ball screens. He's exceptional off the dribble. And yet, in this season of heightened expectations renewed, there is exactly one part of Trimble's game that gnaws at his coach.
"He needs to get more vocal," Turgeon says. "[Graduate transfer] Rasheed Sulaimon has taken a lot of that responsibility, and he's learning a lot from him. But that's the next step for Melo."
It's a critique his teammates echo, even as they admit the squad belongs to Trimble. "Rasheed tells me every game. Rob [Carter, a junior transfer] tells me that. Damonte [Dodd, a junior forward]," Trimble says. "They tell me, 'We're going to go as far as you go.'"
The irony, of course, is that if Trimble weren't so gifted, and at times transcendent, the team wouldn't ask him to step up in that way, to fundamentally change. But he is, and they do.
Sulaimon knows leadership is not instinctual for the sophomore, so he consciously tries to boost Trimble's confidence and to prod him, even gradually, to assume that role. Before every game, Sulaimon walks up to each teammate for a quick pep talk, and Trimble is always his last stop. "He's the lead guard. He's the extension of the coach," Sulaimon says. "When it's the face of your program, it means that much more."
WHEN TRIMBLE WAS 5, his mother, Kim, enrolled him in the local Boys and Girls Club football and basketball programs. Her son was so withdrawn that she hoped to nudge him out of his shell. He took to basketball, but 15 years later, the shell remains.
"He's a true introvert," she says. "And for introverts, for them to speak and speak a lot, that is ... that's a struggle. For someone with that type of personality, it wears them out."
During Trimble's freshman year, his teammates introduced him around College Park, only to leave people wondering why the star point guard seemed so uncomfortable. "They'd ask, 'What's wrong with you? Why don't you talk?'" Trimble recalls.
By now, his teammates have seen Trimble open up. They know his penchant for outlandish socks, the way he loves to insist that he's the "cutest player on the team." But when nudged outside his comfort zone, Trimble is still inclined to recede to the background. "Coach Turgeon expects me to be the leader on the team," he says. "But it's tough for me; I'm used to other people talking."
Still, Trimble is working toward a version 2.0, a project that both Turgeon and his teammates say has already paid dividends. Now when he sees Dodd not setting his pick hard enough in practice, he pulls him aside. And, after a loss to Michigan on Jan. 12, he texted guard Jaylen Brantley to tell him he'd need his help to rebound from a frustrating two-point outing.
This isn't the first time Trimble has had to rebrand himself. In high school, the shooting guard excelled as a scorer -- "Melo scored 30 points more times than I can remember," says Joe Wootten, his high school coach in Arlington, Virginia -- but his 6-foot-2, 175-pound frame proved more problematic. So between Trimble's sophomore and junior years, Wootten told him what he'd need to do to make it to the next level: become a point guard. "Scoring was all I knew," Trimble says. "I didn't know how to make a pocket pass, or how to hit the open guy, or get my teammates involved. I didn't know how to do any of that."
He confesses that he still looks for the rim first. But what he has come to master, Turgeon says, is embracing when he needs to and when he doesn't. His assists have nearly doubled in his sophomore season (5.3 per game), and his points are slightly down (14.4). And that, Turgeon points out, is good news for his Terrapins: "If he needed to get 20, he'd get 20. He's such a better player this year. It's not even close."
This season he is as likely to spy an open teammate beneath the basket as to launch a 3. And Maryland has infused enough talent around Trimble -- from experienced transfers (Sulaimon, Carter) to blue-chip preps (Diamond Stone, the country's sixth-ranked recruit in 2015) -- that this squad can win games even with the reserved version of him. But the NCAA tournament awaits. And if Trimble's first stab at self-reimagination was to determine how far he could go as a player, his next one may well dictate how far he and his teammates can go together. "They say they want me to act like it's my team," he says.
People want to follow Trimble. He just has to take the lead.