Upcoming Big Ten battles could spark Maryland basketball’s turnaround

After a slower start to the 2023-24 season than most imagined, two major opportunities lie ahead for Maryland basketball in the next week that have the potential to seriously alter the trajectory of the team.

The Terps entered this season picked to finish inside the top five of the Big Ten in the overwhelming majority of national analysts lists, a season after winning over 20 games and making the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

A two-game sputter against Davidson and UAB in the Asheville Championship, followed by a virtual offensive no-showing on the road at Villanova left Maryland at 1-3 to begin the season, with major question marks surrounding the legitimacy of these offseason projections.

Three consecutive home wins over lower-level competition has Maryland back over .500 with a chance to begin building its resume with a pair of promising performances against two conference foes upcoming.

In order to remain competitive in these games, head coach Kevin Willard’s team will have to fix several of the issues that have plagued his team to start this young season.

It is no secret that Maryland will go as far as the duo of Jahmir Young and Julian Reese take them. Young and Reese have had hot starts to the season, both averaging 15 points per game over Maryland’s first seven. The inside-outside tandem has worked wonders offensively throughout the non-conference slate, but will be put to the test against tougher competition.

Young leads Maryland with 14 made three-pointers, an area where the Terps have struggled mightily in dating back to last season. Outside of Young, Maryland is 24-119 from beyond the arc to start this season, a 23% clip.

On the interior, Reese has taken tremendous strides toward becoming one of the most formidable big men in the conference. While only a small sample size against inferior opponents, he has grabbed nearly 10 rebounds per game and has recorded three straight double-doubles.

His biggest sign of growth, which was evident in Tuesday’s 103-76 victory over Rider, is his improved free-throw shooting. Reese went 14-17 from the line and is shooting 66% from the stripe to begin the year. If his performance was any sign of what is to come, he can prove to be a major asset on the floor in late-game situations, an aspect that was detrimental at times a season ago.

Outside of these high-scoring southpaws, Maryland’s offensive consistency has been few and far between.

Donta Scott has shown flashes of the player he has showcased over his four years in College Park when he becomes aggressive and doesn’t solely rely on his outside shot. Scott has proven to be at his best when attacking downhill and playing through the post instead of living beyond the 3-point line.

He scored 19 points as a secondary scoring option in the win over South Alabama on Nov. 25, which is a role he has to become more comfortable with as the season continues.

The recent two-game spurt of transfer Jordan Geronimo has been inspiring, as the bouncy forward has surpassed his season-high in scoring in both contests. His all-floor ability was at full display on Tuesday, as he poured in 15 points on a perfect 6-6 shooting from the field. He has the chance to be an X-factor for the Terps.

Where Maryland arguably has the most potential to do damage this season is through its highly-touted freshman duo of DeShawn Harris-Smith and Jamie Kaiser Jr.

Harris-Smith has started all seven games so far but has yet to really find his footing at the collegiate level. The raw talent he possesses will allow him to be a factor throughout the season, but once he becomes more comfortable shooting the ball (1-19 from 3-point range and 48% from the free-throw line) his impact will be somewhat limited.

Kaiser Jr. was brought in to fill the perimeter shooting void, and has looked the part at times in the action he has got. The freshman knocked down multiple threes for the first time in the win over Rider and looked more comfortable spacing the floor.

These two have the chance to grow and learn from the experience their teammates possess and could play a major role during conference play.

Maryland will travel to Indiana on Friday night to battle a Hoosiers team that is also in the process of figuring things out on both ends of the floor. The Hoosiers (5-1) suffered their only loss of the season in a 20-point defeat at the hands of the defending National Champion UConn Huskies.

Indiana is led by center Kel’el Ware (17.7 points and 8.8 rebounds per game) and forward Malik Reneau (15.3 points and 4.3 rebounds per game). The Hoosiers’ starting five averages nearly 6-foot-8, meaning it will be the first tall task for Reese and Geronimo on the interior.

Like Maryland, Indiana has struggled mightily from 3-point range, ranking second-to-last in the conference at just over 24% per game. The battle will be won in the trenches of the paint, an area where Indiana clearly holds the advantage on paper.

Maryland was 2-9 on the road last season and 1-8 in conference games away from the Xfinity Center. This trend has continued in the early stages of the 2023-24 season as well, with three early road losses blemishing its record. Figuring out a way to win on the road in the Big Ten will be crucial for Willard’s team to carve out an NCAA Tournament berth in his second season at the helm.

After Indiana, Maryland will welcome Penn State into College Park on Dec. 6. The Nittany Lions are also 4-3 to start the year after going winless in the ESPN Events Invitational. But after squandering early non-conference opportunities, Friday night’s road matchup not only serves as the next real test for Maryland to win away from home but gives the Terps a chance to add a quality win to their early NCAA tournament bid. Maryland will have a chance to secure its first Quad 1 win after dropping its first two opportunities against UAB and Villanova. Andy Katz excluded Maryland from his first edition of bracketology ahead of the release of the NET rankings on Monday.

If Maryland can squeeze out a victory in Bloomington on Friday, look for an energized crowd in College Park against Penn State on Dec. 6–and a more confident Terps squad.

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