How do you judge a college basketball program's offseason success? By the number of big prospects landed? The key NBA draft prospects retained? Success in the transfer market? Academic progress? Hours spent in the gym?
Fair enough. But what about Instagram views? Or viral videos inspired? Or, wait for it, total appearances made by players on, say, Ellen DeGeneres' daytime talk show?
If (just go with it for the sake of this lede, thanks) you weigh the latter more heavily than the former, then the nonexistent "best college hoops offseason" contest was decided weeks ago.
Maryland won. In a landslide.
In late April, Terrapins' guards Jared Nickens and Jaylen Brantley issued the "Running Man Challenge" -- wherein participants take video of themselves dancing to a semi-obscure 1990s song ("My Boo") as the soundtrack -- with an Instagram video posted from the Terps' locker room.
Other college hoops programs responded. Word spread. Athletes in all sports, at all levels, piled on. Within a week or two, the #runningmanchallenge was a genuine Harlem Shake-level internet phenomenon. Which is why, in early May, Brantley and Nickens sat on the "Ellen" set next to the two teenage inventors of the forum, describing how and why they, as the "Ellen" YouTube channel describes it, "started the latest dance craze!" By now, a Google search indexes over 9 million results for the phrase, including, on May 16, a BBC story on Northern Ireland police responding to the Irish Gardai's dance-off challenge. You know, because the internet.
It doesn't require one's tongue to be entirely in cheek to say that the whole running man thing might have tangibly helped Maryland basketball as an entity. The exposure, the millions of views of Nickens and Brantley wearing their assigned gear before and after workouts, the "brand engagement" that professional viral marketers crave like plants to Brawndo. At the very least, it can't hurt.
Yet the giddy fun of Nickens and Brantley's web fame has existed apart from the story of the Terps as a basketball team. That story -- the promise of Maryland's 2016-17 season, and the effect this spring's major personnel decisions will have on it -- is more mixed.
It is also a story still in need of a resolution. That's because Maryland is still waiting to find out whether it will have its star point guard, Melo Trimble, in the fold for another season.
Trimble, as ESPN Insider Jeff Goodman detailed Monday, was still undecided on his future at last week's NBA draft combine in Chicago. After leading the Terps' unexpected turnaround as a freshman in 2014-15, Trimble was hampered by a hamstring injury in his sophomore season, and his stock, which once graced the first round, tumbled accordingly.
The combine didn't help: Trimble had a disastrous few days in the Windy City, thanks to a combination of underwhelming measurables and shaky scrimmage play. By the time the event was over, NBA scouts were practically begging him to go back to school for another season. Despite it all, Trimble is still seriously considering the idea of keeping his name in. Meanwhile, the May 25 return deadline is less than a week away.
As daunting as the NBA draft might now seem, you could understand why the idea of a return might be only slightly more comfortable. The four starters who surrounded Trimble in 2015-16 are all guaranteed to be gone: Jake Layman, Rasheed Sulaimon, Diamond Stone, and Robert Carter.
Layman and Sulaimon were seniors, but the program, or at least its fans, held out hope that either Stone or Carter or both would be in College Park for one more year. Stone's status as a lottery pick always made that outcome feel unlikely. Carter's decision to sign with an agent and dive into the draft was more surprising, at first glance, anyway. Considering the number of NBA GMs currently scouring the globe for the next Draymond Green, and considering Carter is an undersized forward with perimeter skills who rebounds and defends multiple positions, it kind of makes sense.
In any case, it's a decimated rotation, if not a decimated roster. Nickens, an excellent perimeter shooter who is 6-foot-7, will still be there, and he should be ready to take on a more versatile, inside-out scoring role. Brantley was impressive in limited freshman minutes at the point. Forward Damonte Dodd was still adding new wrinkles, such as a reliable baseline jumper, to his game as late as March, and he has always been extremely solid, particularly on defense. Michal Cekovsky offers plenty of size up front. Perhaps most intriguing among the returners is guard Dion Wiley, whom coach Mark Turgeon expected to be a major bench piece before injuries derailed Wiley's sophomore campaign.
There is talent here and the hints of another balanced, flexible rotation, especially in the backcourt. Yet what made the Terps so enticing in 2015-16, to the point that their No. 5 seed and Sweet 16 finish was regarded by some fans as a disappointment, was how much sheer talent existed within Turgeon's balanced framework. These Terps won't have that punch, no matter what Trimble decides.
With him back and healthy, the idea of a top-25-level season feels entirely realistic. At his best, Trimble is a game-changing offensive force on the ball. Without him -- with all five starters gone, and so many players filling new roles -- Maryland's 2016-17 feels impossible to predict. Just one year after a program rebirth created jubilant national title expectations, the 2016 offseason's fun has largely been reserved for the internet.