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Kevin Willard’s goal is to lift Maryland back among the nation’s elite

Kevin Willard's goal is to lift Maryland back among the nation's elite


BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — What happened Saturday night at Legacy Arena has to be considered a beginning, and because of that there’s a wide berth in how it’s evaluated. At the moment, Alabama has a better men’s basketball team — a better men’s basketball program than Maryland. It doesn’t take much dissecting of the top-seeded Crimson Tide’s 73-51 dismantling of the Terrapins in the second round of the NCAA tournament to understand that.

But in the locker room afterward, Kevin Willard reminded his Terrapins: He got the job as their coach March 21, 2022. Three hundred sixty-three days later, there is progress.

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“We’re in the second round of the NCAA tournament,” Willard said. “… It’s a good first step. We have a lot more steps that we need to take as a program. I think we’ll get there.”

They’re not there, not yet, and that’s fine. There was an inevitability to what transpired Saturday, mostly because of Alabama’s talent but also because of its size and its depth and the fact that this neutral site was anything but neutral, all of 45 minutes from Tuscaloosa. But more than anything, look at it this way: Which players from Willard’s rotation would fit into that of Alabama Coach Nate Oats?

Julian Reese could get some minutes as a long, lean presence underneath — but the Tide is loaded with players like him. Jahmir Young’s court savvy and scoring ability make him an attractive backcourt option, but would he break through the Tide’s top three of Jahvon Quinerly, Mark Sears and Jaden Bradley? Debate it. No one else would be in the discussion.

So there is a gap between the top team in the country and the Terrapins, and it is both obvious and must be closed. There’s work underway to do that, and Willard seems up to the task — passionate about it, even.

“I told them that these guys had really done an unbelievable job of coming together and turning this program into what — getting it going in the right direction,” Willard said. “It was done with an unbelievable attitude, an unbelievable work ethic. I was extremely proud of them. They made this by far the best coaching year I’ve ever had.”

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In Year One, when a transition is still happening and hasn’t yet taken hold, you get the kind of leeway to conclude a 22-13 year with a 22-point loss — and call it progress. It is. When these teams faced each other two years ago in the same round of this tournament, the Terrapins felt noncompetitive, and the programs seemed to be going in different directions — Alabama clearly ascendant under Oats, then in his second year, and Maryland stagnant under Mark Turgeon.

Alabama isn’t in the same spot as it was then. It’s clearly better, no longer on the rise but established near the top of the sport. The current version of Maryland, though, is better than that one, too. The Terrapins’ best — correct that, their only chance against this Alabama team was to slow the game down. For a half, by using ferocious half-court defense, it worked, and the Terps trailed by only five even though Reese spent way too much time on the bench in foul trouble. These Terps are grinders, not gazelles, and shortening the game against a team that averaged 82.6 points — fifth in the nation — was the best philosophy.

2023 NCAA men’s basketball tournament bracket

“They had a good plan,” Oats said, “and they did a good job.”

That’s just not Willard’s plan — nor his philosophy — going forward.

“We press, but we don’t really press,” he said. “We will get much more aggressive as we get deeper. I want to get to the point where we have two or three presses, not just one press.”

And not just a press that, when facing a team of Alabama’s caliber, was left locked in the toolbox Saturday night.

That takes a roster that wasn’t thrown together in two months, and it takes kids who have been in his system — his program — for more than eight months. Like any college coach in the 2020s, Willard will have to re-recruit his own kids annually, keeping key pieces out of the transfer portal and getting them to buy into the idea that he and his staff can best develop them if they stay for three or four years.

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If that happens, what you saw in the second round of this NCAA tournament will look much different from what you see in the second round of future NCAA tournaments.

“Once we kind of get classes after classes after classes, we will probably play much more aggressive than we have played, especially at home,” Willard said. “Our home-court advantage is probably as good as anywhere in the country. So when you get 17,900 going crazy, it’s the ultimate style to play.”

Play how Alabama did Saturday night and how Alabama does under Oats? That takes more time and more continuity. More than anything, it takes more athletes. They’re coming. Willard’s first recruiting class is consensus top 20 in the country. DeShawn Harris-Smith is a wing from Paul VI who is ranked the eighth-best small forward in the country. Jamie Keiser Jr. is another wing from Northern Virginia, via Florida’s IMG Academy, who was offered a spot at Virginia, UCLA, Indiana, Ohio State and other schools.

Reese should be back. Young could be, too.

“I feel like this year was just like a steppingstone for me and the organization overall,” Reese said. “The new guys, the new staff coming in, I feel like it’s a good building block for what’s to come.”

In the final minutes Saturday, after Reese had fouled out and both coaches had emptied their benches, the crowd of 15,198 followed a chant of “Roll Tide!” with an emphatic “Sweet 16! Sweet 16!” That’s where this Crimson Tide team is — with expectations of reaching that round, and more.

Willard, in those moments, paced the sideline, his hands in his pockets. His Terrapins’ time is not now, not yet. But even in the detritus of what looks like a blowout, there’s some hope that it’s on the way.

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