Maryland men’s basketball is nationally relevant just eight games into the 2022-23 season and the start of the Kevin Willard era.
The Terps (8-0) moved up nine spots in the latest AP poll released on Monday, coming in at No. 13.
Willard’s crew put on quite the showcase Friday night at the XFINITY Center, beating No. 16 Illinois, 71-66. Maryland controlled the majority of the game, leading for more than 32 minutes, but it came down to the wire after a gutsy second-half performance by the Fighting Illini. The Terps went on multiple extended droughts, and the score was 67-66 in favor of Maryland with just seconds to play.
With possession and a chance to ice the game, Maryland graduate point guard Jahmir Young called his own number. Young calmly hit a triple from the top of the key at the end of the shot clock, giving his team a 70-66 lead with just 14 seconds to go. Young’s shot would be all Maryland needed, and he starred in his first big home game for his hometown team. The Upper Marlboro native finished with 24 points in the signature victory. Senior Hakim Hart also shined Friday, scoring 17 points and shooting a clinical 5-for-6 from 3-point range.
Maryland will now travel to Madison, Wisconsin, to play the Wisconsin Badgers on Tuesday at 9 p.m. on ESPN. It will be Maryland’s second road game of the season and its last Big Ten game until conference play resumes on Jan. 1 at Michigan. KenPom.com projects a 64-63 Maryland win.
Wisconsin Badgers (6-2, 0-0 Big Ten)
Head coach Greg Gard is now in his eighth year leading Wisconsin and his 22nd straight season on its coaching staff. Widely considered one of the best coaches in the Big Ten, Gard has been named Big Ten Coach of the Year in two of the last three years (2020 and 2022). Wisconsin was projected to finish 10th in the conference last season, but Gard’s squad, led by NBA lottery pick Johnny Davis, won a share of the Big Ten title and a game in the NCAA Tournament.
Wisconsin has played a brutal schedule thus far, playing five power conference teams and Dayton, the preseason Atlantic 10 favorite. The Badgers took reigning national champion Kansas to the brink in the Bahamas, losing on a circus shot at the buzzer in overtime on Thanksgiving. Wisconsin is riding the momentum of Saturday’s thrilling 80-77 overtime win at in-state rival Marquette. Tuesday marks Wisconsin’s first Big Ten game, but it is certainly battle-tested.
“They remind me, probably the best compliment I can give them is, they remind me of the Big Ten version of Villanova,” Willard said. “They are super steady. They’re not flashy. They’re not — you’re not gonna watch them and be like, ‘Oh, man, this team’s great.’ And then the more you watch them, the more you watch them, the more you watch them, they’re like ‘Man, this team is really good.’ They just, they do what they do really well, and that’s what Villanova always did.”
Players to know
Tyler Wahl, senior forward, six-foot-nine, No. 5 — Wahl has steadily improved each season, and he is rightfully the guy for this year’s Badgers. Wahl is dangerous in the post and is used on 31.4% of possessions according to KenPom, the 25th-highest individual mark in the country. He is averaging 14.5 points and 7.1 rebounds per game.
“Tyler Wahl ... his motor is off the charts,” Willard said. “He does it on both ends, I don’t think he gets enough credit, what he does on both ends.”
Chucky Hepburn, sophomore guard, six-foot-two, No. 23 — Hepburn is another Badger who has taken a leap forward from last season. Wisconsin’s point guard, Hepburn is averaging 12.5 points, 3.6 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.9 steals per game. He has started all 41 games in his college career.
Steven Crowl, junior forward, seven-foot, No. 22 — Given Maryland’s lack of size and depth in the frontcourt, bells will ring any time Maryland faces a big the size of Crowl. Sophomore forward Julian Reese had a difficult game against Illinois’ frontcourt, taking only two shots for five points and recording four fouls. Crowl plays 31.1 minutes per game, the second most on the team, and averages 9.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, three assists and 1.1 blocks per night.
Taking care of the ball. Wisconsin plays a methodical, wear-you-down offense, as it spends an average of 19.4 seconds per possession, one of the 25 slowest offenses in the nation according to KenPom. Despite that, Wisconsin rarely turns the ball over; its 15.8% turnover percentage is the 33rd best in the country according to KenPom.
Shooting. Wisconsin actually is a solid 3-point shooting team; its 37.4% clip from deep ranks 66th in the country as of Sunday night. The problem? Wisconsin is abysmal inside the arc, as its 41.6% two-point shooting percentage — according to KenPom — ranks 347th of 363 Division I teams. Of Wisconsin’s players that have played in all eight games, freshman guard Connor Essegian has the best shooting percentage at 46.4%.
Three things to watch
1. With the national hype abound, can Maryland continue to thrive? On Oct. 10, Maryland was voted to finish 10th in the Big Ten basketball media poll. Less than two months later, and Willard has engineered the Terps to one of the most surprising and impressive starts in the country. At this point, all the preseason doubts are out the window. With a veteran group that should be able to stay even-keeled, the noise shouldn’t get to the Terps.
“I haven’t really seen anything different in practice, to be honest with you,” Willard said. “I think we’ve kind of had all, had the same kind of focus. I don’t think the schedule allows us to kind of lose our focus. Obviously Wisconsin, but then you turn around you have Tennessee and UCLA coming up right after that. So I think these guys have been super focused on the fact that they understand we’re playing a really good Wisconsin team. We have to know what we’re doing against Wisconsin. So I think the schedule, although it’s brutal, has helped us keep our focus and kind of stay in our lane that we’ve been doing.”
2. Which version of Don Carey will we see? Carey is a renowned 3-point shooter, but he has been much better away from College Park. In five games at the XFINITY Center, Carey is shooting just 2-for-24 from deep (8.3%). In three games away from home, Carey is shooting a blazing 40% from three (10-for-25). If he provides the latter, he could very well be the X-factor in a Maryland road victory. If not, worry surrounding his shot may continue to grow.
“Don hasn’t shot well. Don’s gonna shoot well at home, or I’m gonna put him in — I’m gonna kill him,” Willard said jokingly. “Don, to me, Don’s one of those guys that I know he’s always going to make the right plays, the right reads. And he’s guy that’s always on the court that everyone always has to know that he’s there.”
3. Can Maryland stamp its mark as a Big Ten contender? It may sound crazy to say, but if Maryland can go into the new year at 2-0 in Big Ten play, it will be in the early conversation to be atop the conference. Winning at the Kohl Center is no easy task, but another quality win will prove that Maryland deserves to be discussed among the Big Ten’s best.
Note: This story has been updated to reflect the latest AP poll, which now has Maryland at No. 13.