The official start of the Kevin Willard era is just 18 days away, and the new energy around the program is exuberant.
Thursday marked the program’s official media day, where Willard gave an opening press conference, and players and assistant coaches were made available.
As the page starts to turn from the offseason to the big stage, let’s take a look at some takeaways from Thursday.
The Terps are looking to push the pace this year
Oftentimes coaches promise to play a faster, more exciting style of basketball in hopes of exciting the fans. Willard has been doing just that in his first offseason as head coach at Maryland, indicating that he wishes to get his team up and down the floor quickly. There’s still over two weeks until the team’s first game of the season, but to this point it appears that Willard’s desire to speed the game up may be legitimate.
“The style of play is gonna be big [for energizing the fanbase],” Willard said. “You know, we’re gonna play probably way too fast. And, we’re gonna shoot a ton of threes. We’re gonna press, we’re gonna get after it. Probably at times we won’t look good just because I have 13 guys that have played five different styles and now they’re trying to get my style, but I think, again, we’re laying down the groundwork for the future.”
Willard’s track record is certainly not that of a high-tempo coach, as his last five teams at Seton Hall ranked an average of 145th in the country in adjusted tempo, according to KenPom. His fastest-paced team — probably his best team top-to-bottom with the Pirates — came in the COVID-shortened 2020 season, ranking 93rd in adjusted tempo. Still, having looked at this year’s roster, Willard sees differences between his Seton Hall squads and his first at Maryland that may be cause to play a different style.
“Inside, you know, we’re not big and dominant. We’re not going to be able to slow down and just kind of grind it out,” Willard said. “... I slowed down the last couple years just because of necessity because of injuries. To be honest with you, it’s tough to play fast when you have seven guys. I think this roster can go nine to 10 deep.”
An over-reliance on three-point shooting can be dangerous, but the Terps’ stark lack of a definitive post presence may mean that they will need to play from the perimeter in order to compete against teams in the Big Ten that can dominate the paint.
Maryland will rely on its returners to pave the way through the early part of the season
When a new head coach takes over a college program, it’s standard for many of the players on the previous roster to transfer out of the program. When Willard was hired and started building out his roster for the 2022-23 season, he made it a priority to keep the core guys with remaining eligibility. That core includes Donta Scott, Hakim Hart and Julian Reese, all of whom are projected starters this season and will play a massive role in determining the success, or lack there of, of Maryland basketball.
Once Willard secured commitments that the returning core players would stay, he made it his mission to surround them with complimentary pieces in the transfer portal. That led to the additions of Charlotte transfer Jahmir Young and Georgetown transfer Don Carey.
While Young and Carey will play the majority of minutes in the backcourt together, Maryland’s success will come down to how well its returners can carry the load. There will certainly be growing pains as everyone tries to mesh together and learn a new coach’s system. Scott, who is entering his fourth season with the Terps, is the leader of the group as the longest tenured Terp alongside Hart, and may also be the best player on the team.
“He’s been an unbelievable leader,” Willard said about Scott. “I’m talking about lights-out and it started from my first meeting with him.”
Scott has increased his scoring average every season since he came to Maryland. The Philadelphia native has lost 30 pounds this offseason, according to him, in an effort to get in better shape for a faster style of play.
“This is my senior year and I feel like it’s my opportunity to be more of a leader and just help these guys out in places that they struggle in,” Scott said.
There’s going to be some rough moments for Willard’s team in his first year at the helm, but he’ll rely on the guys who have been here before, and do his best to stay patient.
“I don’t think we’re going to be as smooth in the beginning as I would like,” Willard said. “I love the way we shoot the basketball, it’s just a matter of all of us getting on the same page defensively and that’s going to take a little bit of time and most coaches aren't patient but the one thing I have learned is that you have to be patient early on.”
Kevin Willard has made yearly expectations clear, but questions remain for this season’s team
The expectations for this version of Maryland aren’t exactly through the roof — the Terps checked in at No. 10 in The Athletic’s official/unofficial media poll — but its new head coach wants to make the standard clear.
“I think it’s gonna be the same every year ... Big Ten championship, national championship,” Willard said. “That’s the goal of this program. Is it gonna be — is every year gonna be possible? Some years probably more than not, but that is our goal every year.”
By default, that is optimistic thinking for this season and likely plenty of others, but Willard gets it. Maryland men’s basketball is a proud program, and its goals should reflect that.
Given the state of the roster, the doubt from the outside is warranted. Willard respected Maryland’s previous players under Mark Turgeon and wanted to give seniors like Donta Scott and Hakim Hart the best possible finish without bringing in guys to step on their toes. Complementing them in a likely starting five will be two transfers — former Charlotte point guard Jahmir Young and former Georgetown two-guard Don Carey — and emerging sophomore big Julian Reese.
Maryland’s bench projections get a little murkier after that. Contributing returner and junior guard Ian Martinez is in the mix, along with redshirt freshman Ike Cornish, transfers Jahari Long and Patrick Emilien and freshmen Noah Batchelor and Caelum Swanton-Rodger. Other returners in sparingly-used juniors Pavlo Dziuba and Arnaud Revaz round out Maryland’s scholarship players.
With a brand new coaching staff and 13 players in the mix, everyone seemingly gets a fresh start.
“The one thing that’s great about coach Willard is, and the one thing that’s great about having a new staff is, at the end of the day, you’re gonna get what you deserve,” assistant coach Tony Skinn said. “We don’t have any favorites. Obviously, there’s been one or two guys who’ve competed at a high level and were maybe somewhat Big Ten guys, but everybody’s been on tryouts from day one. And we’re gonna play fast, we’re gonna be up-tempo, so guys are gonna get their opportunities. That’s the one thing that he’ll always present, your opportunity is gonna be there and just got to make the most of it.”