COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Shortly after Saturday's hard-fought home win over the Purdue Boilermakers, the Maryland Terrapins' Rasheed Sulaimon and Robert Carter Jr.—with smiles no less than a mile wide—greeted the hundreds of fans who stuck around through the postgame interviews for a chance to high-five one of their new favorite players.
The former ACC stars were more than happy to oblige their Big Ten brethren.
Playing in front of a capacity crowd of 17,950 adoring fans for the 11th time this season, surely Sulaimon and Carter had found what they were looking for when they transferred to Maryland.
But it's a scene almost unimaginable just 18 months ago, when head coach Mark Turgeon was firmly entrenched on the hottest seat in the entire country after his third consecutive season spent watching the NCAA tournament from home.
It was an entirely unfamiliar position for Turgeon, who had a lot of success in his previous stops at Jacksonville State, Wichita State and Texas A&M. But according to a poll conducted by SB Nation's Testudo Times in the 2014 preseason, roughly seven out of every 10 Maryland fans were of the mindset that it was 2015 NCAA tournament or bust.
Anything short of that and they would have been calling for Turgeon's head.
To be fair, it's always difficult to replace a legendary coach, but Turgeon's task was made just that much tougher by his inability to hang onto Gary Williams' recruits.
After going just 17-15 in his first season with the Terrapins in 2011-12, Turgeon lost redshirt freshman Ashton Pankey, who went on to become a stud at Manhattan. The following summer, Pe'Shon Howard left for USC and had a pretty solid senior year with the Trojans.
Then came the deluge.
Turgeon lost three sophomores (Seth Allen, Nick Faust and Shaquille Cleare) and two freshmen (Charles Mitchell and Roddy Peters) to the transfer market in a span of less than two months and subsequently dismissed would-be incoming freshman Trayvon Reed from the team after a run-in with the police at a local convenience store.
Toss in the fact that Maryland was mired in its longest tournament drought in more than two decades and no one would have been surprised if Turgeon had gotten the ax after opening his career at Maryland with a fourth consecutive failed attempt to reach the Big Dance.
Melo Trimble refused to let that happen, though, and the Terrapins became a 2016 Final Four threat when he decided to return for a sophomore year. But the real reason they're 22-3 and ranked No. 2 in the latest AP Top 25 poll is the arrival of their two ACC veterans.
Kind of ironic, isn't it?
Not two years removed from being seriously doubted by fans because of transfers, Turgeon is a legitimate candidate for National Coach of the Year largely because of two transfers.
One of those key pieces was already part of last year's team, even though he wasn't allowed to play in any games.
Because of his decision to transfer away from Georgia Tech after the 2013-14 season, Carter sat on Maryland's bench for the entirety of 2014-15. And though we didn't see him for roughly 19 months, he was working hard every day to make the biggest possible impact when his moment with Maryland finally arrived.
As a result, he developed into one of the best stretch 4s in the nation.
Through 12 Big Ten games, the 6'9", 235-pound junior is shooting 43.3 percent from three-point range while also serving as one of Maryland's best sources for rebounds (7.0 per B1G game), blocks (1.3) and steals (0.8).
"His versatility is tough," Purdue head coach Matt Painter said after Saturday's 72-61 loss at Maryland. "He can put the ball on the floor, make a shot, dribble down into a post move or knock down threes."
Because of Carter's versatility, Maryland is able to run one of the most unstoppable offensive sets over and over again.
"[Carter's] two-man game with Melo or Rasheed or Jake [Layman], that's a really tough guard," said Turgeon. "Think about that. You've got Melo coming off a ball screen, and you've got Rob popping. Coaching's really not that hard when you get down to it."
"With me and Melo in the pick-and-pop, you just have to pick your poison," said Carter.
And Maryland's new starting shooting guard has been every bit as important as its new starting power forward.
It's pretty unlikely that we'll ever get to the bottom of why Sulaimon became the first player Mike Krzyzewski has ever kicked out of his program, but Turgeon wasn't about to miss out on his second chance at the star from Houston he so heavily recruited to Texas A&M a lifetime ago.
"Kid's a winner," Turgeon said after Saturday's win, in which Sulaimon recorded his first career double-double. "He's such a smart player, he helps me coach the team with a lot of things. Three years ago, they were saying he was going to be a first-round draft pick after his freshman year, so he's a good player and plays great in big games."
Painter had equal praise for Sulaimon when prompted with a question preparing to face him.
"Well, Dez Wells was pretty good, and there's no difference. Wells was great and athletic and what they don't get from Wells, Sulaimon gives them now. The thing about Sulaimon is this is nothing for him [after several years at Duke]. Even though maybe his numbers aren't that of a guy who averages 17 points, he can guard people, he's athletic and there's no substitute for experience," he said.
Wells headlined the list of six seniors Maryland lost to graduation this past summer—four of which received a substantial number of minutes—so it would be difficult to overstate how much of a boost it was to acquire Sulaimon's experience and leadership.
Trimble was born a leader, and Layman is a senior, but the big question for the Terrapins in the preseason was whether these guys could handle the weight of the world.
They were the hunters last year, but they entered this season as the hunted. Adding a guy who knows all too well what it's like to play with a target on his back was crucial.
"I just take pride in being a leader," Sulaimon said Saturday. "Whenever someone is wavering, whatever the case my be, I just want to be the rock for them to lean on. In different games, it might be me facilitating, might be defensive pressure, might be just being a leader, but I always try to instill confidence in my guys, and it's just a joy playing with them."
And he certainly enjoys playing in front of a fanbase that once hated his living guts.
Maryland's fans loathe pretty much every other team, and there is a large percentage of the college basketball nation whose second-favorite team is "Whoever's playing Duke." Factor in some of the phenomenal games they played against each other in the early 2000s, and there was absolutely no love lost when the Blue Devils and Terrapins squared off as ACC rivals.
The thought of a Duke player transferring to Maryland—especially one who averaged 19.0 points in his three games against the Terrapins as a freshman in 2012-13—was right up there with Johnny Damon going from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees.
Yet Maryland fans have taken him in with open arms. Now, he's the one pumping up the crowd at various intervals throughout the game and the one doling out high-fives and selfies after his postgame interviews at midcourt.
And he's no doubt playing with a little extra motivation this year after seeing what his former teammates were able to do last season. He should have been a part of Duke's 2015 title celebration, and it's pretty clear he's giving everything he's got to be a part of Maryland's celebration this April.
If he and Carter are able to steer Maryland to a national championship, it just might change college basketball forever.
Recruiting kids out of high school sets every team's foundation, but Maryland is one of the several teams proving this season that targeting and signing the right transfers can be what propels a team to greatness. High-ranking teams like Arizona, Iowa State, Miami, Oregon and Texas A&M wouldn't be where they are today without their transfers.
However, the "free-agency" boom hasn't yet equated to championships.
Luke Hancock transferred from George Mason to Louisville and played a huge part in the Cardinals' 2013 national championship, but he came off the bench that entire run. You have to go back 14 years to find the last time a team won it all with a starter who began his college career with another D-I team.
Who was that player, you ask?
Byron Mouton, who left Tulane to play for the 2002 Maryland Terrapins.
Thus, it would be rather fitting if Maryland won it all in 2016 with two transfers in its starting lineup.
Trimble gets most of the headlines, and Diamond Stone is arguably the best NBA prospect. But if the Terrapins are going to win it all this year, it'll be because of the leadership of Sulaimon and Carter.
Pull it off and it won't matter that they began their college careers as a Blue Devil and a Yellow Jacket.
They'll forever be remembered as members of the Red, White, Black and Gold.
All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.
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