Kevin Willard on season turnaround, NCAA Tournament prep, scouting West Virginia

After a grueling December stretch after suffering its first defeats of the season against heightened competition, head coach Kevin Willard admitted the turnaround for Maryland basketball was the January 19 win against Michigan at home.

“After getting pummeled at the first time playing Michigan, I thought the way we came out and really just handled Michigan the second time I thought that gave our guys a lot of confidence about going up against another big guy,” Willard said on Monday on Talking Terps with Johnny Holiday. 18 days after the Wolverines handed the Terps a 35-point loss on New Year’s Day, Maryland bounced back with a 64-58 win inside a buzzing Xfinity Center that featured a breakout moment for Caelum Swanton-Rodger after his poster on Michigan center Hunter Dickinson.

“Obviously Hunter [Dickinson] really hurt us in the first game so I think that game gave us some confidence and then obviously going on the road, getting down 12 early and then battling back and being tied with two minutes ago and then having a shot that tired at the buzzer, those two games were where our guys realized, ‘okay, we can play with anybody.’ “

Maryland would win nine of their last 15 games to place them comfortably on the right side of the bubble heading into March. With Maryland looking like a probable candidate at a top-four finish, the Terps flirted with the five and six-seed line before consecutive losses on the road to Ohio State and Penn State to end the regular season dampened projections. After a wild final day in the Big Ten, the Terps wound up with a six seed and in need of likely two wins to elevate them from the eight-seed line.

After taking care of Minnesota, the Terps crumbled in the second half before falling 70-60 in the second matchup against Indiana. While Willard admitted he knew Maryland would likely land as an eight-seed, finding out his team’s fate early during Sunday’s selection show provided a sense of relief.

“Our name was a third name called, so it was kind of anti-climactic, I guess. It was nice. The stress went all out of your body, but I think it’s, for these guys, I want them to enjoy it.”

Maryland will travel to Birmingham, Alabama on Tuesday and prepare to kick off Thursday’s slate of games against West Virginia for a 12:15 PM tipoff, but with a morning game in central time, Willard hopes to establish an earlier routine leading into game time. “We play at 11:15 Alabama time. We’re gonna practice early [Tuesday], get used to waking up, getting your bodies going, getting that routine. We’re gonna practice really early on just to kind of get in that same routine so that when we wake up on Thursday, it’s not like we haven’t done this before because it is a little, it’s a weird game time. 11:15 is a little bit early.”

After playing the fifth-toughest schedule in the country, West Virginia enters Thursday 27-16 in its last 16 appearances in the NCAA Tournament under Bob Huggins, but this isn’t the classic defensive Huggins team that Maryland fans recall from 2015. West Virginia finished top three in the Big 12 in both scoring offense (76.3), three-point shooting (34.8%) and rebounding margin (2.5) while sitting in the bottom two in scoring defense (71 ppg), opponent shooting percentage (44.8%) and opponent three-point shooting percentage (34.1). “[Monday] I think we try to get a feel for West Virginia’s pressure defense. Tomorrow we’ll start talking about how we’re gonna defend them,” Willard added.

While Jahmir Young admitted soaking in the experience of postseason basketball, only four Terps have game experience in the NCAA Tournament heading into Thursday as they’ll battle a veteran West Virginia squad led by six seniors.

“They’re all seniors and grad seniors. They play at a very aggressive defensive style. Coach [Bob] Huggins’ teams are gonna be physical, rebound. I think what’s really unique about this West Virginia team is that how fast they’re playing and how much they get out and transition more than any Bob Huggins team I’ve seen. They really use your defense to kind of scramble you, get you playing fast and then they’re used to playing fast.”

Fifth-year senior Erik Stevenson, a third-team All-Big 12 selection, is the catalyst for the Mountaineers as he enters Thursday averaging 22 points over his last seven games. “He’s a sniper man. We’ve gotta find him in transition. They do a great job in transition finding him. He’s kind of their spark plug. He’s the one that really gets them. Very talented team.”

With four starters averaging double figures along with Joe Toussaint, who played in a pair of tournaments at Iowa, a key piece on the rotation and Seth Wilson a proven three-point threat, Maryland will need to lean on its defense to get through game one.

“Top to bottom, very long and physical team. Tre Mitchell played five at UMass and now he’s playing the four spot. Kedrian Johnson is their point guard, 6-foot-3, physical. So we have our hands full. These guys just started getting the scout report [Monday], so we’ll dive into it a little bit more [Tuesday] and start putting the game plan in.”

Tipoff is set for 12:15 PM EST on Thursday.

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