MIKE BURKE

Allegany Communications Sports

Maryland basketball may be facing a learning curve this season and through some of next until all of the great players first-year head coach Kevin Willard has recruited get there and feel immediately at home.

Sans the learning curve, that is the intention of the first-year Maryland coach since those players, once they arrive, are going to play and play a lot.

Don’t get me wrong, with Donta Scott, Julian Reese, Hakim Hart and Ian Martinez returning, the Terps have some experienced players, who, now under Willard, are being allowed to do things they might not have been allowed to do previously.

Willard, for instance, has been Reese’s biggest supporter and believes he can be a dominant post player for Maryland, whereas last season the 6-9 sophomore from St. Frances of Baltimore seemed lost on the bench, oftentimes by foul trouble that seemed to stem from indecision and lack of confidence.

Not so far this year, as Reese has been fed the ball by teammates and has been aggressive to the basket in averaging over 17 points in the Terps’ first three games, all decisive victories.

Willard has one simple rule: If you work hard, take the open shot.

He’s allowing all of his players to take ownership of their team, but he is depending on the four returning players, who were either starters or who were part of the rotation under Turgeon and interim head coach Danny Manning (who did an admirable job in a horrible situation) to make it their team and to determine what they want to see connected with their names through their Maryland basketball legacy, which is something every former Terps basketball player has.

Having seen the Terps play just once under Willard, I already love their energy and I love the way they play defense. I love how they push the action offensively and defensively, how Willard uses all of his players, and I love how they live defense first but go to the basket always.

There is so much here with Maryland’s new coach that reminds me of Maryland’s greatest coach, Gary Williams, beginning with the energy and the expectations. He also has major-conference coaching experience, having taken Seton Hall of the Big East to five NCAA tournaments.

Willard came here to win, flatly stating during Big Ten Media Day that every team he coaches will have two goals every season – “Win the Big Ten championship and hang some more banners.”

Under Willard, unlike the very likeable guy before him, the Terps don’t stand around the perimeter with each player hoping there is an open shot when the ball happens to come to him. They run an actual offense to the basket, including on inbounds plays (!); they attack the basket and they up the action, even though I don’t know how the talent level of this particular group will hold up with that once the Big Ten schedule starts.

I don’t want to say this season is a free season for Willard and his players during a reload, but many of the so-called experts are angling it that way.

 

Willard is not buying that and the proof is in the way the tempo is being established right out of the gates for how this program will perform at all times under Willard, and already top talent, top local talent, is on the way.

When he took the job, Willard promised his priority would be to recruit local and to keep local players home close to the people who have supported them from the beginning. And already his first recruiting class amid the early signing period is full of local recruits, including guards Jahnathan Lamothe of St. Frances, DeShawn Harris-Smith, the top recruit in Virginia out of Paul VI Catholic in Fairfax, Va. and Jamie Kaiser, a Burke, Va., native who plays at IMG Academy in Florida.

The 2023 class thus far is the No. 11-ranked class in the country according to 247 Sports, and it consists of players from the DMV. On top of that, current starting guard Jahmir Young, who transferred from Charlotte, is the first alum from nearby DeMatha to play for Maryland since Travis Garrison in 2006.

“The bottom line is Willard has never had the ability to sell a big-time program like this,” Stadium basketball analyst Jeff Goodman told the Baltimore Sun. “Now he has to identify the right types of kids for him and his system. He’s done that thus far.”

St. Frances boys basketball coach Nick Myles told the Sun that Willard “has (brought) excitement back to the program,” adding, “I’m looking forward to seeing what they build at Maryland.”

So are thousands of Maryland fans, alumni and boosters, whereas Willard seems to understand and is confident in what is about to be built at Maryland. Which is why so many of us liked this hire from the very moment it was made.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT