Grant Billmeier is a lifelong Seton Hall Pirate. He grew up in the state of New Jersey and played for the school for four years, a captain for two. Billmeier was an assistant coach for Kevin Willard for 11 years at Seton Hall, contributing to one-third of all the program’s Big East championships.
Still, when Willard came into his office in April, the decision to leave was a no-brainer.
“It was his last day at Seton Hall and he told me I had the opportunity to come down to him at the University of Maryland. Before he even finished the sentence I started packing up my stuff, just because I think it’s one of the best jobs in all of college basketball and I know coach Willard is an elite coach,” Billmeier said. “To get the opportunity to come on down here with him and continue to build on something we had going on at Seton Hall and that’s gonna be even bigger here, it’s really special.”
For years, Billmeier has developed a reputation as one of the nation’s top coaches at developing big men. At Seton Hall, he was credited with playing a major part in the developments of star players like Angel Delgado, Romaro Gill and Sandro Mamukelashvili, all of whom were all-conference selections — Delgado and Mamukelashvili were All-Americans as well.
Despite this success, Billmeier gets excited thinking about the challenge of coaching in the Big Ten, a league with a reputation for elite coaching and big men that he got a taste of in nonconference games at Seton Hall.
“It’ll be great just to scout, you know, Matt Painter, Tom Izzo, guys that have had really good big guys over the years, obviously Brad Underwood at Illinois,” he said, listing the names of some of the conference’s top head coaches. “We’re really excited about that and just learning from other coaches we didn’t play against at Seton Hall. We played against Michigan State a few years ago and we played Michigan this past year. But there’s still a lot of people we haven’t gone against.”
When Willard and Billmeier arrived in College Park, the work began right away. Objective number one was to keep the roster they inherited as intact as possible, and no player in the frontcourt was more important to keep around than sophomore Julian Reese.
Reese, a six-foot-nine forward, was a four-star recruit out of high school and was ranked as the top prospect out of Maryland in his class. In his freshman season, he averaged 5.7 points and 4.4 rebounds per game in an average of under 18 minutes per game, coming off the bench in all but one. He showed glimpses of the potential that could make him a special player for the Terps one day, and the hope is that he’ll be able to blossom with more playing time this season.
With the departure of Qudus Wahab back to Georgetown, the school he originally transferred from to arrive at Maryland a year ago, Reese stands as the only established frontcourt piece on this year’s roster. His choice to stay wasn’t hard, though, as he felt a responsibility to be a part of the coaching transition and help Willard establish a successful culture.
“I feel like it was important for us to stay here to keep that Maryland culture within the team, not to have it totally left off the team … other schools have a lot of guys transferring, so I feel like since we [stayed], it flipped, to help guide Willard to, like, give him the Maryland culture and teach him the Maryland culture while he also teaches and implements his new system and things,” Reese said.
While Reese showed promise in his time on the court a season ago, he still has a lot to prove in 2022-23. He has learned that he can’t always out-muscle his opponents, something that stood out to him during his first season playing in the ultra-physical Big Ten.
“Going into my freshman year, I felt like I had to bang with everybody. It’s not really — it’s not all the time,” Reese said. “Sometimes it’s, like, finesse things, doing things to get around the defender. Things like that.”
Both Willard and Billmeier have been impressed with the sophomore’s development in the offseason, as they have looked at him as one of the most important pieces in the program as they try to build a winner.
“He’s had an unbelievable work ethic. He’s embraced coaching. He’s been by far our best practice player,” Willard said. “You know, it was just more or less let’s get to work and let’s really get you some good habits … almost treat this like his freshman year all over again.”
“I think the luxury about Julian is he’s as comfortable on the block as he is on the perimeter, so you can do multiple things with him,” Billmeier added. “You can put him in dribble hand-offs, you can pick and pop him and get the second pick and roll. So there’s a lot of different things you can do with Julian. You can play him like an old-school five, have him post up and go block to block and do a lot of work down low, but you can also, you know, move him out on the perimeter where he’s also effective as well.”
Other than Reese — who is considered a tad undersized to play as a true, back to the basket-type center in the Big Ten — the Terps have just two players six-foot-10 or taller on the roster, both of which are unproven. Junior Arnaud Revaz is yet to play significant minutes in his career and freshman Caelum Swanton-Rodger is still getting accustomed to the college game. Other post players include Pavlo Dziuba and Patrick Emilien — Dziuba played sparingly last year and Emilien transferred from St. Francis Brooklyn. Donta Scott has been used as a small-ball center at times in his career but is better-suited to play elsewhere, especially on the defensive end.
Regardless, Reese and his frontcourt mates are excited about the progress they’ve made with Billmeier giving them advice day in and day out, something that they felt was missing in year’s past.
“Coach Grant, I thought he brought a lot of enthusiasm compared to last year. I feel like the bigs last year, including me, were a little lackadaisical running down the court and stuff like that,” Reese said. “I feel like he just brought that energy, that extra energy that we needed outside of skill and physique.
“It’s definitely like a big step from last year because we didn’t really have someone really focusing on the frontcourt like this. So I really appreciate it,” Revaz agreed.
Billmeier’s track record is that of one that has been able to get solid minutes out of big men. Most don’t expect much from the position group in Willard’s first year in College Park, but he and Billmeier came to Maryland with the understanding that the potential exists to build something special. Whether or not that potential shows itself in 2022-23 will come to light when the season kicks off Monday.