BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — For its second consecutive NCAA Tournament, the Maryland men’s basketball team was shown the door by Alabama in the second round. On Saturday night, the Terps were bounced via a 73-51 loss in a South Region game before an announced 15,198 at Legacy Arena.
Like the 96-77 setback March 22, 2021, the game Saturday night got away from Maryland in the second half as the Crimson Tide used a 12-7 start to open the second half to build a 10-point advantage and maintain that double-digit lead for the remainder of the game.
Here are five takeaways from Saturday’s outcome.
Maryland was playing with house money
The 2021-22 season ended with the team limping to the finish line with a 15-17 record, question marks surrounding the roster, and instability affecting the head coaching position. And even when the university successfully brought in Kevin Willard from Seton Hall, there was some doubt about how quickly he could revive the program.
Despite being voted to finish 10th in the Big Ten, the Terps (22-13) finished in a four-way tie for fifth in the conference with an 11-9 record, won a school-record 13 consecutive league games at Xfinity Center en route to a 16-1 mark at home, and earned a No. 8 seed in the South Region, where they edged No. 9 seed West Virginia, 67-65, in Thursday’s first round.
On Saturday, Willard pointed out to his players and media that the season’s end on March 18 was three days shy of his one-year anniversary of being hired by the school on March 21, 2022.
“I told them that these guys have really done an unbelievable job of coming together and getting it going in the right direction,” said Willard, who became the first coach in program history to collect 20 wins in his first season and guide the school to the NCAA Tournament in his debut. “And it was done with an unbelievable attitude. It was done with an unbelievable work ethic. And I was just extremely proud of them. They have made this by far my best coaching job I’ve ever had. It’s very difficult to move your family. It’s very difficult to leave some place you love very much and come to a new place, and these guys made this year absolutely phenomenal. I told them I was proud of them, I loved them, I said, ‘Thank you.’”
As much as falling to the overall No. 1 seed Crimson Tide is nothing to sneeze at, graduate student point guard Jahmir Young was left wanting more.
“I honestly think we have more in us,” he said. “I would say that just being picked 10th in the Big Ten, we proved people wrong. That’s how it’s been for me my whole life, just being the underdog and fighting for yourself. We could have laid down at the beginning of the year when everybody picked us 10th. It just shows the resilience of these guys and their character.”
Next season’s roster is a mystery
Questions remain whether next year’s group will include Young, the team’s leader in points (15.8 per game), assists (3.1) and steals (1.3); senior shooting guard Hakim Hart, the second-leading scorer (11.4), playmaker (2.6) and steals-maker (1.2); and senior small forward Donta Scott, the second-leading rebounder (6.0), third-leading facilitator (1.6) and fourth-leading scorer (11.3).
All three have an extra year of eligibility stemming from the cancellation of the 2019-20 season precipitated by the coronavirus pandemic. But as of Friday, both Young and Scott were noncommittal about their future with Maryland.
With graduate student shooting guard Don Carey having exhausted his eligibility, sophomore power forward Julian Reese, a Baltimore resident and St. Frances graduate, is the only certain returning starter.
The team is poised to bring in a four-member freshman class composed of three four-star recruits in small forward DeShawn Harris-Smith, swingman Jamie Kaiser, shooting guard Jahnathan Lamothe (St. Frances) and three-star center Braden Pierce. As of Saturday, that foursome was ranked as the 16th-best group (and third in the Big Ten behind No. 3 Michigan State and No. 6 Ohio State) nationally by 24/7 Sports.
Would the team’s success and an incoming class of prospects persuade Scott to return?
“I stayed here for a reason — even when things were bad,” he said. “So encouraging or not, it’s always been a place that I could call home. If I decide to come back, it will be a decision I have to make with my team, my family, my parents, the people who helped me get to college.”
Maryland needs to address its 3-point shooting
If Young, Hart and Scott choose not to return, the Terps will lose their top four snipers in Carey (57 3-pointers this season), Scott (45), Young (42) and Hart (41). The next returning player on that list is junior shooting guard Ian Martinez (25), who is more renowned for his defensive prowess.
The 3-point arc was not particularly kind to the offense, which entered Saturday’s game ranked 234th among 352 teams in percentage (.330) and 238th in 3-pointers per game (6.8). Those same numbers put Maryland at No. 8 and No. 10, respectively, in the Big Ten.
Against Alabama, the Terps converted only 12.5% of their 3-point attempts (1 of 8) as the Crimson Tide dared the shooters to attack the paint against 7-foot, 215-pound sophomore center Charles Bediako.
Carey expressed confidence that the coaches and players will scrutinize 3-point shooting in the offseason.
“I’m sure that’s something the next squad will work on,” he said. “Alabama, they defended the 3-point line well tonight. They got it going. So they were the better team tonight.”
Maryland has to help Julian Reese
The 6-9, 230-pound Reese may have felt like a man on an island at times as he proved to be the team’s lone consistent player on the interior.
That was especially evident against Alabama after Reese, who led the team in rebounds (7.2) and blocks (1.2) and ranked third in points (11.4), got into foul trouble in the first half. Without Reese in the middle, the Crimson Tide outscored the Terps 9-0 in second-chance points in the first half and 16-4 for the game and grabbed 44 rebounds (15 offensive) to Maryland’s 32 (10 offensive).
“With rebounds, even if we weren’t able to get them, we’d be able to keep our man off the rebounding glass,” Scott said. “But with the lack of size, it was kind of harder just to get everybody in there because you didn’t want to run in there and just leave shooters open [on the other end]. It was just a little bit of a struggle that had a big impact on the team.”
Reese’s backup, 6-7, 210-pound graduate student forward Patrick Emilien, wrapped up his fifth year of eligibility. And if the 6-8 Scott and the 6-8 Hart don’t return, Reese may feel like a solitary presence in the post again.
Maybe the addition of Pierce will relieve some of the pressure on Reese, but Maryland would be wise to strengthen the middle next season.
Maryland should use its recent success in recruiting
A year ago, the team brought in Young, Carey, Emilien and junior point guard Jahari Long via the transfer portal. That option may be the best at providing Reese with the aforementioned support.
Either way, the word is out on the Terps’ emergence as a contender in the Big Ten. Have they risen to similar levels nationally?
“We’re in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 363 days,” Willard said after the loss to Alabama. “It’s a good first step. We have a lot more steps that we need to take as a program, and we will get there. But like I said, if you had told me I would be playing in the second round inheriting five guys on the roster, I would have told you you’re nuts.”
Time will tell how close Maryland is to challenging for an NCAA championship, but Willard and his coaches should be using the team’s success to draw more eyes from transfers and high school players. Carey isn’t shy about the program’s direction.
“I’m proud to say that I think Maryland basketball is back to being a national contender and competing on a yearly basis,” he said. “I think we made some noise. I think everyone understands, especially in the Big Ten, that Maryland basketball is back.”