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Julian Reese’s rapid rise has been key to Maryland men’s basketball’s success

The sophomore forward has dealt with plenty of adversity but has grown leaps and bounds on the court.

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Purdue Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps no one has been more synonymous with the Terps’ turnaround to success than sophomore forward Julian Reese.

A four-star, consensus top-60 recruit who committed to Maryland under former head coach Mark Turgeon, Reese’s collegiate career has been unorthodox, to say the least. Reese played just eight games before Turgeon and the university parted ways. Once interim head coach Danny Manning took over the 5-3 Terps, though, Reese’s freshman year turned into a crapshoot.

Reese showed flashes in year one, such as dunking all over All-American Kofi Cockburn, but his physicality was a concern. Once Maryland’s 2021-22 season ended at 15-17, Reese had plenty of valid reasons to search for greener pastures, had he wanted to. Not only would he be playing under a new coaching staff if he stayed, but his sister, Angel, transferred from Maryland women’s basketball to LSU as well.

But Reese decided to stick around, becoming the biggest prize — with three more years of eligibility remaining — of the four rotation players that first-year head coach Kevin Willard retained from his inherited roster.

Under Willard and assistant coach/big man guru Grant Billmeier, Reese continued to rep the “Maryland culture,” which he referred to in October as a reason for staying with the program, while taking massive strides.

Reese improved in every major statistic this season. His 11.2 points per game average clears his average of 5.7 per night last season. He is also averaging 7.3 rebounds per game compared to just 4.4 per contest last season. Reese hasn’t attempted a 3-pointer this season after chucking 23 last year, but he is taking more than 2.5 more shots per game compared to last season. Most importantly, however, Reese is not just sticking with the best bigs in the Big Ten — and boy, were they better than ever this year — he is thriving among them.

“I think the biggest thing that — a) was physicality on both ends, learning how to play physical,” Willard said. “He fouled a lot thinking he was playing physical when he was just flying all around as a freshman. I think we’ve done a really good job of getting him to understand his strengths and weaknesses.”

Willard noted that they specifically worked with Reese on being comfortable playing away from basket, where mastered perimeter footwork would translate easily to the interior. Willard thought that Reese was getting really comfortable by mid-July, and he had a ton of confidence in his ability and work ethic by September.

While Willard focused on Reese’s physical growth, the big man feels a big difference mentally as well.

“It’s not really the physical aspect of like working like things,” Reese said. “... It’s just coaching, like telling me what to do, more like the mental side of the game and gaining more confidence, gaining more confidence throughout the year. And I feel like we’ve been doing the same thing we’ve been doing for the whole year, but I feel like just confidence is getting higher, just playing with more aggression and things like that.”

While any adversity Reese faced this season may pale in comparison to his first year, this season presented new challenges.

With a lack of proven high-major commodities, Reese had to prove he was ready to be a starting Big Ten center, and prove it fast. Reese started the season strong, posting solid numbers against nonconference opponents and in early Big Ten play. But a Dec. 14 shoulder injury against UCLA kept him out of the second half of that game and the entirety of the next game against Saint Peter’s. An injury he admitted was more of a problem than the public came to believe, it took Reese a while to truly get rolling after that.

“[I] definitely was shying away from like contact on some plays and leaving a lot of points and stats out there like rebounding, boxing out, making extra-effort plays, diving on the floor,” Reese said of his injury. “I feel like, yeah, that kind of set me back a little bit, but now I feel like I’m comfortable with it. It’s still a little bit there, but I don’t really feel it in the game, I can’t really feel it in the game.”

Thirty-nine days after he injured his shoulder, Reese’s true introduction to the nation came in a game against then-No. 3 and eventual-NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed Purdue on Jan. 22. Purdue has the national player of the year in Zach Edey, but Reese played to his level, giving the Terps a comeback spark and a chance to win in what ultimately was a tight 58-55 loss on the road. Reese had 19 points on 8-of-11 shooting against Edey and company, and the data indicates it was just the start of an impressive final 15 games.

Julian Reese’s progression

Time of Season Points per game Rebounds per game Shooting percentage Fouls per game
Time of Season Points per game Rebounds per game Shooting percentage Fouls per game
First five games vs. KenPom top-100 teams 8.8 6.6 0.72 3.6
First five Big Ten games of 2023 7.2 6.2 0.4594594595 3.8
Rest of season (15 games) 12.8 7.733333333 0.6370967742 3.266666667

Reese’s last 15 games featured a stretch of 11 games where he scored at least 10 points. He also recorded four straight double-doubles from Feb. 19 to March 1, the home stretch of the regular season.

The sophomore is playing his best basketball of his career, but he did not have one of his best performances in Maryland’s Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal loss to Indiana. Reese played just 26 minutes due to foul trouble, an issue that haunted him much more in the early parts of Big Ten play than now, and scored just five points on 1-of-4 shooting. Still, going against Indiana center Trayce Jackson-Davis — a unanimous selection to the All-Big Ten first team — is an arduous task that Reese is likely happy to move on from.

Reese will make his NCAA Tournament debut Thursday against West Virginia, the first time he will ever play a Big 12 opponent. The Mountaineers present a challenge with a starting frontcourt of 6-foot-9 Tre Mitchell and 6-foot-10 Jimmie Bell, but life in the Big Ten has prepared Reese for the challenges of his first postseason.

“Going into the tournament I’m looking forward to the competition, how they’re different, like seeing the different competition in different conferences,” Reese said. “Seeing the physicality and guys playing ... especially at my position. And I’m excited to see how far our team can go, and how our team adjusts to new environments and new officiating, different refs. I feel like with that it will help us, help our growth and help us as a team overall.”

Maryland will need Reese, but his new head coach feels lucky to have him regardless.

“I’ve had more fun coaching Juju than I have probably anybody, and that’s saying a lot,” Willard said.