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With the pedigree to help right the ship, Maryland men’s basketball’s new era with Kevin Willard comes with lofty expectations

Kevin Willard will be tasked with bringing Maryland back to the NCAA Tournament.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics

Just over two years ago, Maryland men's basketball found itself at the pinnacle of the Big Ten.

An 83-70 win over Michigan on a Sunday afternoon at the Xfinity Center delivered Maryland’s first Big Ten championship since joining the conference in 2014.

But don’t be fooled, that’s exactly what the expectations were when former head coach Mark Turgeon led the men’s program in College Park to a sparkling .774 overall winning percentage, its highest mark since originally becoming a member of the Big Ten.

Maryland’s high preseason expectations that season had it right around where it was projected when all was said and done. The 2019-20 preseason AP top-25 poll placed the Terps as the seventh-best team in the nation and it hovered around the top-10 for the remainder of the season.

But on March 12, 2020, the Big Ten canceled all remaining games that season due to the COVID-19. Turgeon never got a chance to prove what he could do with what was likely the most dominant team of his 10-year tenure. Still, expectations were met for a Maryland team that boasted immense talent with the likes of Jalen Smith, Anthony Cowan Jr., Aaron Wiggins, Darryl Morsell, and Eric Ayala.

Fast forward to today and expectations are still the name of the game, though the fine print within those expectations has changed. With former assistant-turned interim head coach Danny Manning serving as the buffer in 2021-22 after Turgeon’s abrupt departure, former Seton Hall men’s basketball coach Kevin Willard will officially step in as Maryland’s next head coach.

Willard was officially introduced to the Maryland faithful on Tuesday night in the Xfinity Center. The newly hired 10th coach in Maryland men’s basketball history, who hails from Huntington, New York, was inevitably asked about expectations.

College basketball reporter Andy Katz reported that Willard will receive a seven-year gig with Maryland, including an average that lies around $4.2 million per season. In comparison, Turgeon was in line to make $3.3 million for the 2021-22 season before mutually parting ways with the school. That length and figure for Willard, which places him around some of the highest-paid Division I men’s basketball coaches, comes with expectations.

And while those expectations certainly won’t be as lofty as they were back in 2019-20, Willard didn’t shy away from what the Maryland program is expecting in the near future with his official entrance that comes just 12 days removed from the Terps’ hard-fought four-point loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament.

“Just about every other sentence,” Willard said about his conversation with Maryland Athletic Director Damon Evans on getting Maryland back into the NCAA Tournament. “I think that’s something that, you know, being here that’s our expectation.”

Returning to the Big Dance will be easier said than done for Maryland, even with the addition of Willard. The program concluded this past season with a 15-17 overall record, finishing the campaign with a record that was under the .500 mark for the first time since the 1992-93 season when Gary Williams was just in his fourth season as the head coach.

The Terps are in a place that they haven’t been in a while. Keep in mind, Maryland hasn't made it past the second round of the NCAA Tournament in each of the last six seasons. The program, now with the help of Willard’s vision, will look to build itself back to the point where expectations are high again.

Luckily for Maryland, Willard has experience with constructing something out of fairly little to work with.

Willard, who became Seton Hall’s head coach in 2010 and previously had experience with Louisville and Iona, led the Pirates back on a path to the postseason, a place it had seldom been since he took over the program from Bobby Gonzalez. Seton Hall had been in the midst of a long NCAA Tournament drought before the reins were passed to Willard, having not made March Madness dating back to the 2005-06 season.

Two of Willard’s first three seasons with the Seton Hall program ended up being the only ones of his tenure in which the team finished under .500. It took six seasons for Willard to guide Seton Hall to the NCAA Tournament, but the growth was noticeable.

Willard’s first NCAA Tournament experience with the Pirates was back in the 2015-16 season, and although they suffered a first-round exit, three more appearances in the next three seasons followed. Willard finished his career at Seton Hall with five tournament appearances in the last six events.

To put that into context before Willard’s era, Seton Hall manufactured a mere nine appearances in the NCAA Tournament since joining the Big East ahead of the 1979-80 season. That’s nine appearances in 31 seasons, compared to six appearances in 12 for Willard. He also led the program to its first NCAA Tournament victory since 2004.

Those kind of numbers don’t lie when revealing Willard’s consistency.

“We are excited about the future of Maryland basketball with Kevin leading the way,” Evans said in a release. “Known for his gritty, hard-working teams, Kevin has had tremendous success, winning conference championships and leading his teams to NCAA Tournaments.”

Factor that consistency with an accumulation of 28 total wins over AP top-25 teams in his head coaching career, his 2016 Big East Coach of the Year honor and a 225-161 overall record at Seton Hall, and you have a head coach that is a solid fit for a Big Ten team in need of direction.

But while Willard has had success getting his teams into the NCAA Tournament, there’s something to be said about his ability to advance in the tournament itself.

Seton Hall has made the second round just once under Willard, with that appearance coming in 2017-18 when the No. 8-seeded Pirates fell to No. 1-seed Kansas by just four points. Seton Hall had just a 1-5 NCAA Tournament record with Willard at the helm.

That kind of track record should make Maryland wonder if Willard is the proper man for the job.

Yet even with those losses, Willard’s consistency made expectations for that program at Seton Hall rise. He turned a program from nothing to something consistent. And while the situation isn't exactly the same with Maryland just being out of contention for a single season, that’s what the 46-year-old will be tasked with at Maryland with next season being uncharted territory for the Terps.

Willard’s first few seasons will be about transitioning Maryland back to the upper echelon of the Big Ten standings after a disastrous 2021-22 campaign. But in the short term, Willard has a selection of talented players to build around ahead of his first season in College Park.

Even though Maryland will be subtracting its top point guard in Fatts Russell next season, and likely Ayala as well, the Terps have a few solid building blocks for Willard to jumpstart the Terps’ new era.

Former four-star forward recruit Julian Reese, junior forward Donta Scott and junior guard Hakim Hart are the most notable pieces of this Maryland team that, as of now, are in line to be on the roster next season.

Reese might be the most important player for Maryland moving forward. Under the tutelage of a fellow big man in Manning, the former four-star recruit averaged 5.7 points in 17.7 minutes per game within a conference that is in part ruled by talented forwards and centers. Reese’s 23 blocks ranked third on the team.

His development next season will be crucial to Maryland’s success and Willard has experience churning out strong seasons from big men. Willard coached the 2021 Big East Player of the Year in Sandro Mamukelashvili, who stands at a comparable 6-foot-11, 240 pounds, to Reese’s 6-foot-9, 230-pound frame.

Mamukelashvili, a former three-star recruit, made massive strides under Willard, increasing his points per game average in every single season following his freshman year in 2017-18. Reese showed plenty of flashes this past season and the expectation is that his development can line up similarly to Mamukelashvili’s progression with Willard in the picture.

It all comes back to expectations and Reese will have sizable ones entering 2022-23, just as Willard will.

Those lofty expectations with building the Maryland program back up are also tied to the financial investments that the university.

A new practice facility, which Evans officially tabbed as the “Barry P. Gossett Basketball Performance Center” at Tuesday’s press conference, is now a reality. Evans said that nearly $40 million was raised to help build the facility that will be used by both the men’s and women’s teams.

Evans called it “another key piece in the advancement of Maryland basketball.”

The facility will feature weight and fitness rooms, two separate practice courts, locker rooms for both the men’s and women’s teams, a “Walk of Fame and History” area that highlights Maryland basketball’s history and direct access to the XFINITY Center for student-athletes and coaches.

“This training facility will keep both our basketball programs ahead of the curve and at the top of their games,” Maryland women’s basketball head coach Brenda Frese said on the facility’s page. “We always strive to be the best and this facility will represent that. In my 17 years at Maryland, the support we’ve received is incredible and I know our fans will love seeing our programs work out of the best facility in the country.”

A practice facility with a massive amount of allocated funds, along with a newly signed head coach for the men’s program, signals a new era of expectations for Maryland.

Willard emphasized that the facility is a “game-changer.” But before Willard and the rest of the Terps put their “shovel in the ground,” as Evans put it, a new culture needs to be built within the program itself.

“I’ve only talked to this group a couple of times, but it seems like they’re a really good group of young men,” Willard said about the players on his new team. “They seem eager to be ready to get back on the court. So to me, that was a really great sign that they’re ready to get back to work... I think it’s a really good group.

I got to get these guys back on campus, that’s the other thing, the fact that they’re on spring break is kind of a little bit tough. I got to see Donta Scott today cause he was still on campus, but I need to get in here and start work with them and I think that’s the biggest thing. They have to see that I’m buying into them as much as I need them to buy into me and that’s kind of what I’m all about.”

Building a new culture under Willard, along with adding a new practice facility to the equation, puts a lot more weight on the expectations for Maryland’s future.

Maryland has come a long way from raising the conference trophy in 2020 and it all started with high expectations. Though those expectations are not quite the same heading into next season with plenty of question marks present, Willard will have plenty to prove in his first year as Maryland’s head coach.

The first of seven reported years awaits.