Last summer, Maryland men’s basketball junior guard Hakim Hart was on a mission.
For the past two years, Hart believed he wasn’t big enough to compete against the top players in the Big Ten Conference, so three to four times a week, he grinded in the gym. By the time the start of this season came around, he already knew he gained an advantage. He was quicker and 15 pounds of muscle stronger.
Those hours spent in the weight room have translated on the court, as Hart has become arguably the Terps’ best defender and a key figure during what’s amounting to a breakout season.
“He’s a great defender,” graduate transfer guard Fatts Russell said. “If there’s a best player on a team, we feel like we could put [Hart] on them.”
Hart has had quick hands defensively, ranking third in the conference with 1.7 steals per game, an increase from last season when he averaged 0.8. He has at least three steals in five games, including a four-steal performance in Maryland’s 81-65 victory over then-No. 17 Illinois last Friday. The Terps are 9-0 when Hart has at least two steals in a game.
“I think it’s me getting taller and [having] more length,” said Hart, who stands at 6-foot-8. “I have speed with the length, so I’m just trying to use all of my abilities.”
During Hart’s sophomore season, he and senior guard Eric Ayala split time as primary ball handlers. But when former Maryland guards Aaron Wiggins and Darryl Morsell, the 2021 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, left and Russell, a transfer from Rhode Island, arrived, Hart slid to the small forward spot while taking up the role as the Terps’ defensive anchor.
He incorporated Morsell’s defensive knowledge — the ability to be in the right spots and being a vocal presence — into his own game, which has made him feel comfortable guarding almost every position on the floor.
“Darryl and [Wiggins] were the guys that talked on defense,” Hart said. “I wanted to make sure I was talking on defense and being that guy.”
Hart takes pride in his defense — “I hate when someone scores on me,” he said — and he’s eager to face the opponent’s best player. That mindset was evident in Tuesday’s 68-60 victory over Rutgers, when he shadowed guard Ron Harper Jr. and limited him to shoot 0-for-4 from the 3-point line after making six outside shots in the previous matchup just 10 days earlier.
Interim coach Danny Manning said Hart has been the team’s unsung hero, referring to the Philadelphia native as “the glue that holds it together.”
“He makes the right play,” Manning said. “He guards with great understanding and doesn’t get rattled.”
Hart’s aggressiveness has translated on the offensive end, too. He said he is more shot-ready and he utilizes his size to attack gaps left by the opponent’s defense.
Hart worked with assistant coach Matt Brady during the offseason to alter his shooting form so he could be ready to score at any given moment. He’s averaging 9.5 points per game and has reaped the benefits, scoring in double figures in 10 of the last 12 games after recording nine double-digit scoring performances in his first 55 career games.
“Because [Hart] was always tall, he would shoot the ball with two hands and didn’t elevate,” Brady said. “We have gotten him to become a one-hand shooter and worked a lot on getting his left hand off the ball and up in the air a little bit to create upward mobility and strength.”
After Maryland entered the season with high expectations, the Terps are 11-9 overall and 3-6 in the Big Ten. They’ll be underdogs in almost every game they play moving forward. But just like his teammates, Hart has embraced the underdog mentality and uses it to fuel his game while proving doubters wrong.
“When people overlook us,” he said, “we take that as a challenge and push ourselves even more.”
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