Kevin Willard, players react to Maryland basketball’s NCAA appearance, first round matchup vs. West Virginia

Maryland men’s basketball has earned a No. 8 seed in the NCAA tournament and will face off against No. 9 seed West Virginia in the first round on Thursday at 12:15 p.m.

The Terps – who missed last season’s tournament with their first losing record since the 1992-93 season – are back in the big dance in head coach Kevin Willard’s first season at the helm. Maryland finished the season with a 21-12 overall record, having gone 11-9 in Big Ten conference play and is fresh off a Big Ten tournament that saw the Terps defeat No. 14 seed Minnesota before falling to No. 3 seed Indiana in the quarterfinals.

“I look at this much more [for] the guys that haven’t experienced the NCAA tournament,” Willard said. “And really for this team, these kids bought into our culture, they bought into our style. I’ve said it all along, they have been one of the best teams to coach because they have a great attitude and they work hard.”

Senior and Maryland-native Jahmir Young transferred to the school for a chance to lead his hometown team to the NCAA tournament, which is something he has dreamed of for years.

“Just a lot of emotion,” Young said. “Just being able to get here, it’s like a dream come true. I’m just excited to be able to play, … from being a kid just watching March Madness, sitting in the living room on the couch to finally being able to play in March Madness.”

Fellow starters Donta Scott and Hakim Hart will be playing in their second NCAA tournament at Maryland, but have dealt with some adversity in their four years in College Park.

As freshmen, they were members of the 2019-20 Big Ten champion Maryland team that had hopes of reaching a Final Four, before the COVID-19 pandemic snatched any possibility of that becoming a reality.

The two were part of the 2020-21 team – which defeated Connecticut in the NCAA tournament before losing in the second round to Alabama – but fan capacity restrictions impacted the true feel of the tournament.

The following year, their head coach Mark Turgeon resigned in the early stages of the season and the team struggled to find any consistency in what was a fairly tumultuous season.

Now, as seniors, they have an opportunity to finish their careers with one true tournament run.

“Going through all of that was a very unique college experience,” Hart said. “Not too many people [can] say that they have been through that, so it shows that we have fought through adversity.”

Regardless of the outcome of his team’s tournament run, Willard noted how important of an accomplishment it is to reach the tournament in his first season with the program.

“I think I made [Athletic Director] Damon Evans look pretty smart,” he joked. “It’s been an unbelievable journey so far because this is such a great program with unbelievable alumni. The former players have been terrific. This team has been so fun to coach in my first year. They just give me everything that they’ve had.”

Maryland thrived in games played on their home court, as the Terps concluded conference play with a flawless 10-0 home record. However, the team struggled mightily in games away from the Xfinity Center, ending the season 2-9 in true road games, with only wins coming against Minnesota and Louisville.

Despite these road struggles, Maryland fared better in games played at a neutral site, picking up key wins over Saint Louis and Miami at the Mohegan Sun in November, as well as hard-fought losses to Tennessee in December and most recently Indiana in the conference tournament.

Having faced the gauntlet that is the Big Ten schedule, Willard feels that conference games are beneficial come tournament time because of the physicality and style of play that is displayed throughout the league.

“What I love about this conference – and what I hate about it – is that every night you see a very unique style,” he said. “So I think what the Big Ten gives you more than anything is that you get to prepare against not just one style of play, … it really prepares you defensively to play against all sorts of different teams. I think it does give you a unique ability to kind of prepare so that no matter who get in the NCAA tournament, you have kind of seen just about every style.”

Maryland was placed in the South Region of the tournament and will open in Birmingham, Ala. to face West Virginia. If they defeat the Mountaineers, a potential second-round matchup against top-overall seed Alabama could be looming.

If this matchup happens, it will likely feel like a road environment with how close in proximity the game will be played to the Alabama campus.

“Sometimes the fans aren’t always going to be on your side,” Scott said. “I think that is the biggest part that kind of prepared us. When we played Indiana [in the Big Ten tournament] they kind of had home-court advantage.”

Before the mindset shifts to an Alabama matchup, Maryland will have to take care of West Virginia.

“Every coach [Bob] Huggins team is going to be supremely disciplined, they’re going to be physical, they’re going to rebound the basketball,” Willard said. “I think coach Huggins is a Hall of Fame coach because he does adapt to the kids he has. ”

“We need to fix our transition offense and our transition defense. We just have to get back to being a little bit more fundamental on our transition defense.”

Maryland and West Virginia will tip at 12:15 on Thursday and will be televised on CBS with Jim Nantz, Bill Raftery and Grant Hill on the call.

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