As expected, Maryland men’s basketball is 3-0. The Terps have blown past Niagara, Western Carolina and Binghamton to start the season, all games where they were favored by anywhere between 17 and 21 points.
For all intents and purposes, though, the real season starts now. Maryland will have its hands full this weekend at the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip Off Classic at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut. Saint Louis, a borderline top 25 team and one of the favorites to win the Atlantic 10, will pose a difficult task, and a Sunday game against either Miami or Providence will be no joke either.
Though the results may not speak incredible volumes of what this team may accomplish, the first 120 minutes of the Kevin Willard era have brought plenty of narratives.
Julian Reese’s progression has been well-documented, but his potential as a passer could add even more to his game.
After an average opening night against the Purple Eagles, Reese put forth two excellent games. In back-to-back games, the sophomore big put up a career-high 19 points while missing just three combined shots. On the season, Reese is shooting an eye-popping 58.3% from the field.
Reese is cleaning up the glass as well, averaging 8.7 rebounds per game, which includes 3.3 on the offensive glass. He has also gone from committing three fouls in the first game to just one in the Terps’ most recent showing against the Bearcats.
While Reese’s improvement has been notable — he cites his confidence as a major difference from last season — he should be expected to have performances like this against weaker competition. With no elite bigs to matchup against, the true answer of Reese’s progression will happen in these big nonconference showdowns and in Big Ten play.
At six-foot-nine, players across America, including some from the Big Ten, will outsize Reese. He will need to find a way to differentiate himself from other bigs, and perhaps it will come as a passer. Willard sees it in practice and thinks that Reese can become a four assists per game guy in addition to his scoring and rebounding.
“Every day in practice, he passes the ball tremendously,” Willard said. “So, again, I get to see these guys every day in practice, which is a little bit different. You guys just look at the box score and see the game, so you don’t get the advantage of being with these guys every day.”
Reese has been seen practicing his threes in the media-open portion of practice, though the odds of him becoming a 3-point threat this winter are minute. Instead, as he gets more attention in the post, his vision could be the difference.
“I feel like my passing is a good part of my game that’s not really shined upon,” Reese said. “Especially with these [upcoming] games, teams are probably going to start double-teaming me ... I feel like doing things like that can set me apart from other bigs in the country.”
What will the rotation look like?
With two games in a 24-hour span coming this weekend, pretty much everyone seems to be an option to play.
The starting five of graduate guards Jahmir Young and Don Carey, senior guard Hakim Hart, senior forward Donta Scott and Reese seems to be fairly concrete, as do the first three guys off the bench. Junior guard Ian Martinez seems to be the sixth man, while junior guard Jahari Long and graduate forward Patrick Emilien should be consistent cogs in Willard’s rotation.
Freshman guard/forward Noah Batchelor (10 minutes per game) and redshirt freshman guard/forward Ike Cornish (nine minutes per game) seem like potential energizer bunnies but have been on the wrong side of the main rotation. Cornish played by far the best minutes of his three-game career Tuesday, scoring nine points on 3-of-4 shooting. It remains to be seen how big of a piece Cornish can be, but he showed signs of encouragement for the first time since arriving on campus before last season.
“Ike redshirted last year, so Ike’s a freshman,” Willard said. “So he’s still doing freshman things. So that’s going to be good and bad ... I don’t gain confidence with guys in the game, I gain confidence with guys in practice. I expect guys to play well in games if they’re playing well in practice. I think that, I think players gain confidence in games.”
The other potential wild card on the roster is six-foot-11 freshman center Caelum Swanton-Rodger. Swanton-Rodger’s size makes him an intriguing piece in the Big Ten — and Willard said after the first game that he would be a good fit against bigger teams — but the unheralded prospect’s future playing time is unknown at this point.
“Yeah, I mean, we’ll see how Cal practices this week,” Willard said.
Willard’s thoughts on KenPom and perception vs. reality.
The Terps’ first-year head coach has been blunt when referencing the controversial topics of NIL and the transfer portal in college sports. Though not as controversial but equally important in college basketball today are the NET rankings, KenPom and analytics in general.
Willard remarked after Tuesday's 24-point win against Binghamton that he didn’t like how Maryland ended the game on the wrong side of consecutive game-ending runs by its opponents. The Terps once led by 32 against Binghamton, which ended the game on an 8-0 run, and by 33 against Western Carolina, which ended the game on a 14-1 run.
The wins were certainly blowouts, but Willard said that “stats matter” and “all of the sudden your KenPom goes down, NET goes down.” Each of the 2,400 seconds in regulation matter equally, at least as it impacts team ratings in the long run.
But what is Willard’s overall philosophy regarding services like KenPom?
“KenPom this time of year is useless,” Willard said. “I don’t know why [KenPom creator Ken Pomeroy] doesn’t reset — I know why he doesn’t reset because no one [will] look at KenPom early in the year ... If he didn’t do it the way he did, no one would look at it until probably December because, and now it’s for coaches, it’s absolutely useless because he still has some of the old metrics and it’s just, you look at teams getting, teams scoring 48 points and they’re still second offensively. It’s really not good.”
Willard acknowledged that he doesn’t use KenPom early in the season because of the preseason bias, but he does shift to using it around January when the numbers become more accurate. As it relates to his team’s performance early on, his feelings are more frustration than anything.
“I was a little bit angry with the team just because for me, this time of year, perception is reality,” Willard added. “We haven’t had the biggest crowds, so a lot of people are picking up the newspaper the next day and opening up the paper and seeing a 24-point win instead of a 34-point win. Perception is a little bit of a reality. We’re up by 30 for almost 13 minutes of that game and then you pick up the paper and it looks like we won by 24. We should have won by 34, and then people picking up the paper, get a little bit more excited, think ‘Oh, look at this.’”