Maryland Basketball’s Hot Start Validating Kevin Willard’s Fit

For the first time since week two of the 2021-22 season, Maryland men’s basketball entered the AP Top 25 in this week’s updated at 23rd and coaches’ poll at 25th after Kevin Willard became the first head coach in Maryland basketball history to start his first season 5-0. Willard and the new-look Terps have done so in convincing fashion after starting the season with three consecutive 20-point wins ahead of a dominant weekend in the Mohegan Sun as victors of the Hall-of-Fame Tip-Off Tournament. While Maryland fans took note of the noticeable change on both ends of the floor through the first three games, it’s the performance over the weekend that garnered national attention.

Willard knows a ranking comes with heightened expectations, though. “Getting ranked, I think having two really good games and playing well offensively. I just think that’s great motivation for us to keep doing what we’re doing,” Willard said Wednesday. “I think sometimes the outside noise can be motivation, whether it’s good or positive, and I just think whatever it is, if it’s negative, you take that and you bring it to the gym. If it’s positive, that reinforces what you’re doing and you should try to do even a little bit more.”

On both ends of the ball, the unselfishness of this team and its overall hustle have been evident. The defensive energy has been the most visible and important difference in the Terps’ early season success. Early and often, guards are picking up at full court as Willard’s interchangeable defenses have been arguably the most welcomed sight. A byproduct of the defensive intensity and rhythm is turnovers as Maryland averages 3.4 steals per game, good for seventh in the country. They’re also tenth in the country keeping opponents to 22% from three which helped Maryland defeat Saint Louis and Miami (FL) by an average of 23 points.

On the other end of the ball, the offense has quickly reversed the bad shooting performances, specifically inside the arc. Maryland is shooting in the top twenty with 61% percent shooting from two-point range. The frontcourt experience is thin, but early on, Donta Scott and Julian Reese have been stars offensively. After winning MVP honors thanks to 49 combined points over the weekend, Scott is shooting a red-hot 47% from three and is averaging 23.5 points per forty minutes. His revamped build has paid dividends as his speed is an asset on the offensive glass, already up to thirteen in the first five games. Meanwhile, Willard admitted after game one that Reese needed more touches on the offensive glass but that hasn’t slowed down his efficiency on the glass, garnering a team-high sixteen offensive rebounds due to his increased physicality in the paint. His bulk from the summer has paid off thus far and after showing signs of improved efficiency on both ends, it will be interesting to see how he plays against the Big Ten’s best. Jahmir Young has proved he can run this team; his handle and ability to get to the basket have been most impressive. The move to shooting guard has paid off for Ian Martinez, who is now in a more natural roll as he’s developed and found his shot-creating role. Don Carey’s shooting was always evident in practice, but his performance through the weekend was a key factor in the offense’s success.

Kevin Willard has shown an intensity in practice, on gameday, and in his press conferences. He continues to be blunt about the state of the program, hammering home that this team will continue to fight through both ups and downs. “That’s just the way we play. We have to play with great energy. That’s a non-negotiable for this program. We bring it every day. There’s no carryover, that’s the way it is every day. That’s the way it is every practice, there’s just, there’s not allowed not to have energy. You’re not allowed not to have a work ethic,” Willard said on Wednesday. The mentality that the first-year head coach brings is quickly spreading through the fanbase and in time, will be reflected in higher attendance at home games.

Maryland will return to action on Friday to host Coppin State before traveling to Louisville for the ACC/Big Ten challenge, but then awaits Willard’s next big test of the season. Maryland will open Big Ten play against 16th-ranked Illinois on December 2, then travel to Wisconsin, face 22nd-ranked Tennessee at the Barclays Center before hosting 19th-ranked UCLA on December 14.

Whether Maryland can stay undefeated through the upcoming slate of games remains to be seen, but so far, Maryland basketball has shown signs of becoming the program that fans have long hoped for. Since joining the program, Willard has signed six local prospects including a signed 2023 class that sits as high as 11th in the nation. After making the local rounds to engage with the fanbase, Willard then proved himself on the hardwood with a style of basketball that fans enjoy: defensive intensity, balanced offense, offensive sets and high energy. The wins to start the 2022-23 season have validated Maryland’s efforts on the national stage, but in the eyes of many fans, the eight-month track record for Kevin Willard as Maryland’s head coach has shown promising signs of becoming the answer in College Park.

Related Links

JuCo Safety Bishop Fitzgerald recaps unofficial to Maryland (+)

Shell-N-Tell: The “Will” to Win

Photos: Nyckoles Harbor, Rico Walker visit Maryland for Ohio State game

Maryland football: senior day, Thanksgiving week, Taulia update

Big 12 Foes to Face Maryland in Latest Bowl Projections

Four-star talks return visit to Maryland, timeline (+)

Former Big Ten verbal hearing from Maryland among others (+)

Maryland basketball slides into AP top 25 after 5-0 start

Terps signee impressed with Maryland basketball’s start (+)

VIP: weekend update, Monday visitor, basketball rolling (+)