Kevin Willard talks new-look roster, team chemistry, perimeter shooting and Italy trip

Maryland men’s basketball will welcome a trio of familiar faces in Kevin Willard’s second season as head coach with practices underway with its preseason trip around the corner. Willard noted the balance between a veteran presence and the addition of young talent as summer has given the new-look Terps a chance to build early team chemistry.

“I think it’s a good balance. Obviously, we have a terrific class of freshmen. But I think what’s really going to help them is the fact that they do have juniors and seniors who have been through this, have been through college basketball, to understand what’s going on,” Willard added. “That will help them as we get closer to the season and will keep them going in the right direction when they hit the wall a little bit.

While Willard irons out the new pieces, he benefits with a trio of veteran leaders leading the pack with Jahmir Young and Julian Reese are among the six returning players next season. That added familiarity has given Willard and the staff a chance to implement the full defense.

“And we’re adding in a couple of defenses this year because the veterans will know what we’re doing for the most part on defense,” Willard added.

With Maryland’s outside shooting its biggest concern a season ago, Willard pointed to a pair of underclassmen who’ve shot well so far this summer. “Noah has taken a big jump and Jamie Kaiser can shoot it with the best of them. I think just adding those two guys on the floor at any time along with Jahmir who has really improved his shooting will give us options.”

With ten practices ahead of the Italy tour next week, Willard also admitted the four games across a ten-day span will allow him to get creative as he and the staff get a closer feel for their roster and different lineups. “I think more than anything it gives us a chance to see what works, what doesn’t work, and what you can do,” Willard said of the preseason tour. Maryland won’t have Chance Stephens available after suffering a ruptured patellar tendon during a summer workout, sidelining him for the bulk of the 2023-24 season, but Willard isn’t afraid to get creative in Europe as the assistant coaches are in line for expanded roles.

“We’re going to play all 13 guys and will mix up the line-ups some. So, I’ll try playing four guards with Mady, I’m gonna try to play 7-foot, 6-11,6-11, 6-6, and 6-6. So, the games will kind of be fun and we’ll be able to experiment. Each one of the assistant coaches are going to coach the games, I’m not going to coach them. I think it’s a great opportunity for them to be in charge and draw plays. I’ve always done that. And I think it’s been very beneficial to my assistant coaches.”

There was one clear way that Maryland can make the Italy trip a successful trip from Willard’s perspective.

“I think the biggest thing I’m hoping is that we can take steps with the four freshmen, that Cal can take another step, that Noah will take another step. That way, by the time we come back and start practicing in October, we’re working on stuff that we usually work on in December. And that gives us an advantage that we can build off of those things. And then maybe I don’t have to work Jahmir [Young] so hard in December and in January.”

Aside from the four upcoming exhibition games, Willard also took note of the impact off the court that the Italy trip could have as the four new freshmen and pair of traveling transfers gel with the returners.

“I think most importantly, it’s a great opportunity for the guys on the team to really bond, to get to know each other, spend serious time off the court together, and do some really interesting things including an opportunity to see culturally what they might not have been able to see. So, I think these trips are invaluable.”

This will be a beneficial stretch for the four freshmen and other newcomers to the program. “It’s definitely going to be a huge team bonding experience, hopefully win a few games and get better overall,” freshman guard Jamie Kaiser said.

Willard admitted with all the coaching staff changes this off-season, even they have work to do getting on the same page. “I’ve been through this before, but I’ve never lost three in a year,” Willard added. “So, it’s been a little bit more time consuming on the staff side and the player side.”

Nothing a little bread, wine and cheese can’t fix. The Terps depart on July 31.

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More from Willard 

On staff chemistry with three new assistant coaches

KW: That’s probably the biggest work in progress I have going on right now. The players are easy and, and everything like that. So, it’s getting Mike up to speed on things that are different here, getting Greg a little bit more involved in what he was able to do before. Ricky’s been great, but he only got jumped on the floor July 1. David’s elevated to a new role. So, for me, I think a lot of my summer has been trying to get the staff kind of on the same page and getting them to understand what we’re doing. Luckily, I’ve been through this before, but I’ve never lost three in a year. So, it’s been a little bit more time consuming on the staff side and the player side. But that’s a good thing about having guys like Jahmir Young, JuJu, Dante, and Jahari – those guys have been great in helping the players get ahead of where we’re at where the staff hasn’t had to be so involved.

On recruiting progress and NIL

KW: Recruiting has been going great. I think this area is extremely welcoming to everybody to be honest with you. There is such a high level of coaches. I’ve said this all along from the AAU side and from the high school side. They respect the fact that I think the staff has put a lot of hard work into building those relationships. And NIL has been great. You know, it’s just a constant battle, because that’s really what recruiting is all about. I hate to say it, but there’s really nothing much else besides that and it’s not going to change anytime in the near future.

On Maryland’s first practice

KW: Practice was great. I liked the fact that some of the younger guys from last year took some steps and played really well. I love the way the freshmen didn’t take a backseat, they came out right away and tried to try to prove themselves. I’ve seen big jumps in Jahmir; JuJu has taken another big jump so far – he’s worked really hard on his shooting and playing a little bit more on the perimeter. And Dante is, I think, poised to have a really good fifth year.