Freshman Melo Trimble leads Maryland in games played, minutes, points, scoring average, free throws, free throw percentage, assists and steals. But Trimble's game is at least as pleasing to non-analytics obsessives. Early into a season in which his team earned a reputation for thriving in cliffhangers, folks near and far noticed that the kid was The Man.
"He's the one we want with the ball in his hands at the end of the game," Maryland junior forward Jake Layman said of his new point guard after a game in November. "He is the straw that stirs the drink," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said in January after Trimble led Maryland to a blowout 75-59 win in front of a sellout home crowd of around 18,000.
I followed Trimble at Bishop O'Connell High in Arlington, Va., where he played before crowds about 97 percent smaller. But I'm not at all surprised at how well he's performed on the bigger stage and under the brighter spotlight. Because along with seeing him play wonderfully before getting to Maryland, I know the guy had to get through endless off-court soap operas and tune out blaring off-court noise for much of his time there.
As Maryland opens up its tourney today against Valparaiso, let's review of some of the Melo-drama that surrounded Trimble.
Trimble committed to Maryland as a junior at O'Connell, and his squad won the super-strong Washington Catholic Athletic Conference that year. But for much of the season, his play was overshadowed by accusations that star teammate, Republic of Congo native and center/forward Junior Etou, had falsified his birth certificate and was way too old to play high school ball. O'Connell Coach Joe Wootten, with plenty of cover from school administrators and the local Catholic archdiocese, ignored the credible evidence, and instead Wootten used the cheating allegations to foster an Us vs. the World mindset on the team.
Trimble was scheduled to be honored as a league all-star during a pre-game ceremony on the night of the WCAC championship game against rival St. John's. But when his name was announced over the house public address system, Trimble didn't come out. He and his O'Connell teammates staged a walkout to show support for Etou, who'd been snubbed by voters because of the age controversy. I've been to lots of high school sporting events through the years, but that's the one and only schoolboy athlete protest I've witnessed.
Trimble returned in time for tipoff and scored 33 points in O'Connell's 57-53 win. (The sanctioning body for international basketball, FIBA, ruled later in 2013 that Etou's O'Connell paperwork was indeed bogus, and that he was 21 years old.)
More theatrics continued around Trimble during his senior year. Two O'Connell teammates left the school amid allegations they'd filmed a sex act on campus. Curtis Malone, the director of Trimble's powerhouse AAU team, the D.C. Assault, got nabbed in a DEA sting operation as the feds fingered Malone as the leader of a drug ring peddling heroin and cocaine throughout the region. Malone pleaded guilty and is now serving a 100-month sentence in prison. Malone, long the godfather of amateur hoops in the D.C. area, had been supplying basketball talent to O'Connell, so the arrest shook Trimble's school like no other: Trimble was one of seven D.C. Assault players on the O'Connell roster at the time. (Malone was also Junior Etou's legal guardian.)
The last act of Trimble's O'Connell drama climaxed when a group of alumni petitioned the Vatican to help clean up the mess at the school. Rome has yet to get involved.
Trimble's commitment to the Terps was a huge deal for all concerned. D.C. Assault blue-chippers avoided Maryland during the reign of coaching legend Gary Williams, who retired in 2012. Maryland hadn't signed a McDonald's All-American since 2003. Williams always blamed the inability to bring in local superstars on his refusal to play games with Malone. "I don't want to hear about Curtis Malone," Williams told the Washington Post in 2009. "I know what he is."
Malone being jailed as a drug kingpin vindicated Williams. But when Mark Turgeon arrived to replace Williams, he showed right away he wouldn't be beholden to the former coach's ways and means. One of Turgeon's first moves was to bring in super recruiter Dalonte Hill, a longtime friend of Malone's who had coached for the D.C. Assault before joining the college ranks. Hill's job just before coming to Maryland was as an assistant at Kansas State, where he got a $420,000 a year contract—larger than any other assistant hoops coach in the NCAA—as a prize for bringing along Michael Beasley, a D.C. Assault product. Hill earned his keep when Beasley took the K-State hoops program to the NCAA tourney in 2008. And Hill showed he still could land the big one when he and Trimble ended the Terps' D.C. Assault drought.
But Hill couldn't keep his nose clean. He was arrested for driving under the influence in October 2013, his third DUI in five years. After a leave of absence from Maryland, he turned in his resignation. Yet even with his rabbi gone, Trimble honored his commitment and showed up in College Park.
From jail, Malone told Sports Illustrated that Trimble would not have "stepped foot on Maryland's campus" without a D.C. Assault coach on the staff if he were still in charge. But Trimble is scripting his own scenes now.