Maryland basketball: Maryland-Georgetown renewed, confidence in newcomers & depths, vet expectations set

Maryland men’s basketball is weeks away from the start of the 2023-24 season as head coach Kevin Willard took the podium on Tuesday to preview this year’s squad.

“Excited about getting the season started. It’s been a really really good preseason. Guys have been energetic working hard. The trip to Italy really kind of helped us, kind of get everybody integrated a little bit and really excited about the season. It’s a good group of guys. They’re working hard,” Willard said in a rare opening statement.

Takeaways from media day in College Park:

Confidence in the newcomers and depth

After going seven-deep through Big Ten play last season, head coach Kevin Willard is confident in the depth along the roster heading into year two.

“We were kind of stuck a little bit last year with you know, a six, seven-man rotation at the most this year. You know, I could see us going nine, ten, 11 [deep] at times,” Willard said on Tuesday.

Maryland is coming off a 74-70 win over Cincinnati in their first “secret” scrimmage over the weekend. Willard noted the team “got hit with the injury bug about a week ago,” limiting their lineup combinations.

“We had to kind of mix and match some lineups, but we’re pretty close to figuring out who can play together, what lineups we want to do. I’ve messed around with a really, really big lineup with Donta Scott at the three, mess with a really, really small lineup with Jordan Geronimo at the five,” Willard noted.

After being sidelined the last two weeks, Caelum Swanton-Rodger was going through post drills on Tuesday as he steps into a backup role behind Julian Reese. “Cal physically is a much different player than he was coming in as a freshman. He got here late from Canada so he’s really developed.”

The athleticism and toughness from Jordan Geronimo remained a theme through Tuesday’s media day as the former Indiana forward steps into an impact role.

“We really wanted to have someone that knew how to play the game, but at the same time could really help us athletically and Jordan, although he’s not 6-foot-11, Jordan is as athletic as a player as I’ve seen in a while. So we played him at the five against Cincinnati the other day and he was great. I can play him at the four, I can play the three. Defensively. I can play in one through five. So he’s just one of those guys that like, I call him the Swiss Army knife. He can kind of do a little bit of everything. And he’s really helped us in the fact that he knows the league. He’s been through it. And so I think any time you can get someone that understands this level of college basketball, and how physical and how much of a grind this league is. He’s been great because he kind of understands what’s going on.”

While the length and athleticism are hard to miss from New Mexico St. transfer Mady Traore, Willard cautioned fans to remain patient.

“I think everyone just needs to take a big deep breath with Mady. Just everyone be patient with him because he has the talent, the athleticism, the length to be a superstar, in my opinion, but it’s just gonna take him a little time to adjust from not really playing last year [and] having a very difficult situation to now coming into the highest level of basketball.”

Meanwhile, new guard Chance Stephens suffered a ruptured patellar tendon back in mid-June and is in the midst of rehab. Stephens was on the floor going through drills on Tuesday, hopeful he can still make his Maryland debut later in the season. “Now I’m about 50% with just getting my strength back and just getting back on the court,” Stephens added.

But of course, the freshmen headline the reinforcements as DeShawn Harris-Smith, Jamie Kaiser Jr. and Jahn Lamothe have made 7 AM workouts a part of their daily routines.

“Are they going to have their ups and downs and are they going to have some games where they don’t play well? Absolutely. I watched Zion Williamson as a freshman and he struggled at times and he was the best, one of the best freshmen I’ve ever seen. But these guys are coming from day one. Jamie, DeShawn, Jahn, they all get in the gym at 7 AM. Every day since they stepped on campus they’ve been in the gym at 7 AM, preparing themselves to get ready. And again, from a physical standpoint, they’re going to be able to compete. I have tremendous confidence in them because of how hard they’ve worked in the three months they’ve been on campus. Every once in a while you’ll get you’ll get someone to come in the gym three days a week when they first get on campus and they’re all excited. These guys, it’s every single day. They’re in here getting work with the staff. So from that standpoint, I think they understand how hard they have to work and that’s what gives me a lot of confidence in them.”

Expectations set for returning vets

The return of Jahmir Young for a second season in College Park not only solidified the Terps’ backcourt, but gives the Terps its undoubted leader to lead a blend of experienced and young talent into the season. After shying away from the NBA in each of the last two offseasons, Willard shared how Young can develop into an NBA-caliber point guard.

“I think his biggest challenges that he’s working on right now is just reading defense a little bit better, slowing down a little bit in pick-and-roles. I think he’s done a great job in understanding that. He came from an offense that didn’t wasn’t pick-and-roll heavy. Charlotte played much more of a Princeton-style offense, two out, open post, so he got thrown into a very pick-and-roll heavy system. And I thought he did a great job of adjusting. He’s now taking that next step to not just adjusting but now reading defense, understanding when to go. I think he’s he has such a better feel of who he’s playing with and what their strengths are. I asked him to do so much last year that I don’t think he had time to really comprehend, ‘okay I’ve got Noah Batchelor on the trail and I got Jamie Kaiser in the corner. You know, let me get in the lane and get an easy three.’ Last year he was just trying to survive this conference a little bit. He’s matured a little bit. He’s a little bit more, he understands that he’s got some guys around them now that can help him be a better player and I think that’s been his biggest step and what he still has to kind of continue to improve.”

Willard also reiterated Scott’s improved frame and noted Scott “had the best preseason” over the last two offseasons.

“I think he’s finally in a place where it’s his last year of college. He finally passed math so he’s gonna graduate. I mean, like there’s a whole lot of things off Donta’s plate now where he can just kind of focus on basketball a little bit and he’s not getting talked about enough he’s not getting enough credit. Everyone’s talking about Jahmir and Julian for good reasons, and the freshman for good reasons, but Donta Scott’s had a great offseason. I think he’s poised to really have a breakout season even though he’s a senior.”

Julian Reese has added 15 points and has made his midrange game a focus through the offseason, where he and assistant Greg Manning Jr. were working on jumpers ahead of Tuesday’s practice.

“Julian is Julian. He’s gonna kick everyone’s ass and just go at it. And that’s what Julian does and that’s why I love him.”

Maryland-Georgetown series expected to resume beginning 2024-25

Once Ed Cooley was hired as Georgetown’s new head coach, it seemed like a matter of when, not if, the Hoyas and Terps would renew the local rivalry. Head coach Kevin Willard admitted it was a “date thing” on Maryland’s end that derailed hopes of a matchup during the upcoming season, but fans won’t have to wait much longer.

“I know Ed’s gonna get mad at me but Ed’s a dear friend. Like we should start the Georgetown series next year. We’re close. Just trying to see if I can get some more golf out of Ed before I sign. But we should start the Georgetown series again, Empire Classic. So next year will be a little bit more balanced,” Willard said on Tuesday.

How close are Maryland and Georgetown to coming to an agreement?

“Well, he bought dinner the other night so that was a good start. We’re close,” Willard joked. “Ed’s a really good friend and I understand from the fan bases how important that game is for this area. I get it. He gets it. We were going to start it this year. It was like done and it was a date thing. It was our date. I couldn’t find the date. So next year I’m pretty confident that we’ll start, but percentage-wise, maybe another dinner on Ed. He’s got a new contract. So that’s how close we are. Probably just one more night in DC,” Willard joked.

While fans look ahead to reigniting the storied local rivalry, Maryland is less than three weeks away from beginning the regular season against Mount St. Mary’s before heading to the Asheville Tournament.

“The Asheville tournament was still on the books. And the Asheville Tournament [is] extremely weird, really limited our nonconference games because our now free date is Thanksgiving but most tournaments are going on during Thanksgiving. Ours is the 10th and the 11th which is usually [when] you play your second home nonconference game and then you go into Gavitt and then you go into a tournament. Like next year, we’re in the Empire Classic on Thanksgiving so this year’s schedule is still a little bit hampered just for the fact that our non-conference tournament is so early.”

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