Maryland basketball can prove itself during the tough four-game stretch


As Kevin Willard approached this season, he had high expectations for the future and even this year, his first responsibility for the Terrapins program. But along with that confidence he preached the need for patience. Willard had to bring players from other college programs and a few more from high school together into a cohesive unit, each learning new schemes with a new staff. He inherited a program that had endured a turbulent season with an interim manager.

“Will it be smooth from the start? I can tell you that now, no,” Willard said a month before his first game as Maryland coach. “We’re still screwing up drills that I can’t believe we’re screwing up.”

Willard thought this roster – which includes four scholarship transfers and two freshmen, most of whom play regularly – could be “perfectly” competitive in the Big Ten, but he hedged early expectations. Willard thought the team could be “really good” – but added “as soon as we can get through December somehow”.

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Yet here’s Willard and the Terps with a 7-0 record after surviving the first month of the campaign. This 22nd-ranked team has played a relentless defense and has four players averaging at least 13 points. From wire to wire, Maryland’s victories were hardly in doubt. As Willard recently admitted, “I do think we’re a little ahead of schedule.”

Now the terps will start a track that will determine how far ahead they are. Or if losses pile up, the fanbase could revert to their modest preseason expectations. A four-game gantlet begins Friday when Maryland opens the conference game at home to No. 16 Illinois. The Terps already have notable neutral wins over Miami and Saint Louis, but this will mark the first time Maryland has faced a ranked opponent.

After playing the Illini, the Terps travel to Wisconsin, another game that will fuel hopes for how well Maryland might do in the Big Ten. And then the fanbase can enjoy two marquee non-conference matchups — a game against No. 13 Tennessee in New York, followed by a home game against No. 21 UCLA. These two weeks will be grueling, but they are also packed with opportunities.

“Just going out there and proving ourselves against some of the best teams in the country, that’s always great,” said senior forward Donta Scott, the team’s top scorer with 15.9 points per game. “It’s your talent versus their talent and whoever wants it, more.”

Comparing his conservative preseason guidance to that increase earlier in the season, Willard believes he underestimated how quickly his players would pick up game plans and understand scouting reports. The maturity of his group has shown. Four of the team’s starters are seniors and have played a total of 404 games across five conferences.

Maryland’s two backcourts, Georgetown’s Don Carey and Charlotte’s Jahmir Young, are new to the Big Ten. Willard too, although his Seton Hall teams often played and sometimes beat teams from the league. Maryland has twice (in December 2018 and December 2019) been the loser of those matchups against the Pirates, and Willard also recently picked up wins against Michigan, Rutgers and Penn State.

The Terps rolled over their opponents by an average of 22 points. They are less than four minutes behind in seven games. There were no significant hiccups. But Willard has a long list of all the areas where terps need to improve. He holds up a notepad as evidence, but calls its contents “top secret”.

The start of conference play will challenge how well the positive trends that have sparked optimism in Maryland can hold up against tougher opponents.

Scott, who transformed his physique by losing nearly 30 pounds this offseason, has scored at least 18 points in four games this season. In the last three years of his career, Scott has only hit that mark six times. He’s quicker on the court and said he can jump a lot higher.

Young has been a consistent point guard for the Terps with 13.9 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game. Young, who was a prolific goalscorer in Conference USA before his move, understands his new role, which draws on the talent around him.

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“We have a lot of pieces and I feel like we’re starting to piece that together,” Young said. “We keep growing.”

Sophomore forward Julian Reese has shown his growth, including a 24-point game against Coppin State, but he’ll soon be challenged by more formidable big men. And when Reese is benched for extended periods due to foul problems, Maryland has primarily used smaller lineups that could be exploited by larger-sized opponents.

Confidence comes from the intensity the terps have shown in each game and the way they train. Jahari Long, who played for Willard at Seton Hall before moving to Maryland, said he thinks “we’re one of the hardest training teams in the country.” He said the preparation is leading to a shared belief among players that they are ready for games with a spotlight like the one they will have on Friday and are not afraid.

“It’s a great joy for everyone,” Long said. “We’ve all been waiting for this moment.”


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