CHICAGO – Mark Turgeon sat on the podium, not bothering to contain his wide grin.
No one could fault him. With his men’s basketball team only in its second year in the perennially robust Big Ten, the Maryland coach and his talented squad have risen to the top — at least if you believe the preseason predictions — prompting rival coaches at Big Ten Media Day to gush and use words like “elite,” “cream of the crop” and that other phrase that really rings: “national title contender.”
“We’re excited,” Turgeon said, smiling ear-to-ear. “Really like my team. Really like my guys.”
But just as is the case nearly every season, Maryland’s charge to the league crown will not go untested. One season after the conference struggled through one major injury after another, the Big Ten appears better than ever with as many as six teams projected to land in the Associated Press’ initial Top 25 rankings.
Think post-loaded Purdue, super-scoring Indiana, always-hot Wisconsin and restocked Michigan State.
Michigan, finally healthy after injuries robbed the Wolverines of Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton Jr. for big chunks of last season, is in it but has a lot to prove after dropping a handful of head-scratchers in the last go-round. Ohio State, meanwhile, has no seniors and will rely heavily on freshmen.
Count Nebraska’s Tim Miles among those who aren’t buying the idea of a down year for any of the bluebloods.
“Where did the top go?” he said with a laugh. “Who’s coming down? Ohio State? Michigan? Michigan State? Really? What’s a down year to those guys, second round in the NCAA?
“It reminds me of the NFL — you look at those top four or five teams that seem to be in it every year: Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana, Wisconsin. So it feels like there are like eight of us playing for like three spots.”
Miles’ rest-of-us group would appear to include the Gophers, who probably are at least a year away. This time through the Big Ten, the Gophers likely won’t garner much chatter with coach Richard Pitino sporting a youthful, inexperienced team that has no proven options in the frontcourt.
But for those at the top, a throng of game-changing big men could make all the difference.
Michigan State lost three double-digit scorers from coach Tom Izzo’s seventh Final Four team, but the Spartans still have backcourt depth surrounding the ultra-versatile Denzel Valentine and now big potential in the frontcourt as well with 6-10 Deyonta Davis, one of the better post players Izzo has recruited in a while. Indiana’s assembly of shooters and scorers welcomes 6-10 All-America Thomas Bryant, a big boost for a team that struggled with size and interior defense a year ago. Purdue brings in Caleb Swanigan, a 6-9 low-post presence who can also pass and shoot. He joins 7-foot senior A.J. Hammons, a unanimous selection to the preseason All-Big Ten team.
“I think we’ve got a couple of front lines in this league that are as good as any in the country,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said. “The upper echelon is going to be determined by the depth on the front line.”
Maryland will be in that conversation after getting physical Georgia Tech transfer Robert Carter Jr. and luring 6-10, 250-pound Milwaukee-area standout Diamond Stone, widely considered the league’s best freshman, away from traditional Big Ten country. But Maryland won’t have to rely on size. The Terrapins, who finished second in the conference to national runner-up Wisconsin a year ago, look to take another step all-around. They are bigger and deeper, more balanced and more dynamic. Sophomore point guard Melo Trimble, the preseason Big Ten Player of the Year, will lead the way, creating opportunities and baffling defenders off the dribble, and Duke transfer Rasheed Sulaimon will bring more scoring power in the backcourt.
It’s a far cry from where the Terrapins seemed a year ago, when Turgeon took the podium and responded to much different expectations — Maryland was predicted to land near the basement in its first season away from the ACC.
His grin Thursday made one wonder if he had known all along that this day would come. But nothing in this league is easy, something even Turgeon, king for the moment, knows.
“I knew when I was sitting here last year that I had a good basketball team,” he said. “Did I see 28 [wins]? No, I didn’t see that. Did I see Diamond Stone coming to Maryland? No I didn’t see that. Did I see Rasheed Sulaimon popping open and he ends up at Maryland? No, I didn’t see that happening.
“So it all came together.”