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Maryland is free from the burden of expectations and back to winning close games

The Terps have transitioned smoothly after losing four starters.

NCAA Basketball: American U. at Maryland Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Expectations were tempered for Maryland basketball this season after the Terps failed to reach their ceiling a year ago. Maryland began last season at No. 3 in the polls but struggled to find their footing for much of the campaign, losing six games in the Big Ten before eventually falling to top-ranked Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen. Four of the team’s five starters then promptly left for the NBA Draft, setting up what looked like a rebuilding year. Instead, Maryland is 7-0 out of the gates after pulling off a number of close wins.

The wins haven’t come easy for a young Terps team that still relies heavily on star guard Melo Trimble to close out games. The Terps have won five games by six points or less. The most recent came on an acrobatic Trimble layup with five seconds to spare against Kansas State. The drama of that one paled in comparison to a seven-point comeback in the final minute to beat Georgetown on the road two weeks before.

Maryland is playing with little margin for error, which might remind Terps fans of the 2014-15 team surpassed expectations in its debut year in the Big Ten. That team finished second in the nation in Ken Pomeroy’s luck metric, and this team may need similar fortune to play deep into March. The Terps won’t blow many opponents out, but it's clear they have a formula for winning tight games.

There’s no question who is getting the ball for Maryland in crunch-time anymore. With its four starters gone, the Terps lost 63 percent of their scoring, 59 percent of their rebounding and 58 percent of their total minutes. The burden falls into the capable hands of Trimble, who now finds himself in a much different role from last year.

He isn’t the team’s point guard anymore as he had been for two seasons. Flipping to a more natural off-ball position, Trimble has relinquished a good deal of his dribbling and playmaking responsibilities to freshman Anthony Cowan, ESPN’s No. 62 recruit.

Cowan has commanded the point since the first game of the year and possesses a number of skills to complement Trimble. He’s much quicker, a better defender and a more comfortable play-creator. In seven games, the freshman is averaging 10 points, five rebounds and four assists.

In turn, Trimble — no longer sharing a crowded court with NBA talent like Diamond Stone, Jake Layman and Robert Carter Jr. — has returned as the brilliant scorer he was in a stunning freshman year campaign two years prior. Save for a game against a Division III opponent he didn’t play much in and he’s scoring 24 points per game and getting to the free throw line 10 times.

The rest of Maryland’s starting lineup is filled out by ESPN’s No. 49 recruit, wing Kevin Huerter, four-star recruit Justin Jackson and sophomore big Ivan Bender, the elder sibling of Phoenix Suns No. 4 pick Dragan Bender.

Huerter, New York’s Mr. Basketball and the current silhouette of his high school team’s logo, has shown spurts of the lethal outside shooting he was recruited for. He’s only shooting 32 percent from distance, but hasn’t shied away from taking and making them in critical moments. He’s averaging seven points per game, along with five rebounds and a block.

Jackson has been a threat inside and out with his lengthy 7’3 wingspan. He has soft touch around the rim, can defend around the rim despite his slender frame and has consistently knocked down shots from the perimeter. Firing at 52 percent from deep, the freshman is scoring 12 points per game, and also pulling down seven rebounds.

Bender has shown massive improvement after playing all of 43 minutes a year ago. He’s averaged five points and has some semblance of a post game. For a team lacking a true inside presence, his minutes have been key. Another big contributor has been 7’1 Michal Cekovsky who too, buried behind the likes of Stone couldn’t find much court time last season. In three games back from a foot injury he’s averaged 10 points and five rebounds and is likely to make his way into Turgeon’s starting lineup.

But outside of small contributions from backup center Damonte Dodd and point guard Jaylen Brantley (one of the running man guys), that’s been it. For a team without superstar recruits or much top-level talent, that could be an issue in conference play.

Redshirt sophomore Dion Wiley, who Turgeon claimed may have started over Sulaimon last year had he not torn his meniscus, has shot the ball with a 25 percent success rate. Returning role player Jared Nickens — the other running man guy — is playing his way out of the rotation with poor defensive showings and ice cold 14 percent shooting. Duquesne transfer L.G. Gill is falling down a similar road.

Maryland will need bigger contributions from its bench if it want to have any hope of matching up against Big Ten powers like Indiana. The Terps don’t have that yet, and can’t rely on the same top-of-the-line talent they had last season. But if their veterans on the bench play up to their potential, they can threaten teams an arms reach above them.

In Trimble, the Terps kept one of, if not the best closer in college basketball for another season. But this could be his last. He’s proven it time and time again that he can close out tight games and carry Maryland when it needs him most. The question is whether his supporting cast can help him get those game-winning opportunities.

If it can, Maryland can still be a team capable of winning games in March even after losing so much talent.