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Terps

Q&A: Maryland men’s basketball coach Kevin Willard on leaving Seton Hall, recruiting, transfer portal and more

Maryland men’s basketball coach Kevin Willard is busy, and that’s understandable.

Since being named as Mark Turgeon’s successor last month, Willard has been on a nonstop grind of recruiting, getting acclimated to a new program and area, team workouts, staff hirings and interview requests.

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Even though Willard is months away from his first season with the Terps, he already has his sights on winning at the highest level, making how he fills out a roster with six open scholarship spots even more important.

Since Willard was in the seventh grade, he saw himself as a coach. Growing up, he would question his father, Ralph, a former college basketball coach, about certain aspects of the game. And for 10 years, he worked under longtime coach Rick Pitino as an assistant with the Boston Celtics and Louisville men’s basketball, admiring the Hall of Famer’s hard work and passion for the sport.

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Willard sat down with The Baltimore Sun to discuss adjusting to a new program, leaving Seton Hall, recruiting, the transfer portal, athletes benefiting from their name, image and likeness, Pitino’s influence and balancing fans’ expectations.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You finally have been able to get the players in the gym to work out. What have those workouts been like?

They’ve been great. The guys have been working hard. They’ve had great attitudes and great enthusiasm. We’re making some really good progress on things that I want to see improved on. So it’s been a fun two weeks. I think guys have enjoyed getting back in the gym.

When you are trying to get yourself adjusted to a new team, what is step one?

I think step one is exactly what we talked about … getting in the gym with the guys and getting to see their work ethics, what needs to be improved on [and] what they’re good at because that starts formulating what you need to add to your roster to complement the guys that are here.

How would you describe your philosophy and approach to the game?

First and foremost, it’s player development. It’s what we focus on here every day. Academically, socially, basketball … trying to develop them at the highest level every day. Make sure we go in every day, and they’re getting better.

You stayed at Seton Hall for 12 years. Was it difficult to make that jump to Maryland?

I’ve said a bunch of times when timing and opportunity are equal, I think it works out. And I looked at it as a great opportunity to be the head coach at the University of Maryland. The timing was right for my kids [and] it wouldn’t be a major inconvenience. And also, the opportunity for the right person to take over Seton Hall at the right time. All those things that kind of work. And when those things come into play, it just makes sense.

"I think [Maryland Athletic Director] Damon [Evans] has a great passion for this program. He has a great vision for this program. And again, I knew the tradition and history of the program. But I loved what Damon thought this program could be," new Terps men's basketball coach Kevin Willard said.
What were those conversations like with [Athletic Director] Damon Evans? And what was the biggest selling point for you?

I think Damon has a great passion for this program. He has a great vision for this program. And again, I knew the tradition and history of the program. But I loved what Damon thought this program could be.

You speak of tradition. This fan base has very high expectations in terms of winning, recruiting, etc. How do you balance those demands being a first-year head coach at a new program?

It’s hard to balance fans’ expectations. I think that’s what makes this job one of the better jobs. It has such a large fan base, and it has great expectations. I don’t think you ever try to change expectations. I think you just got to try to work to equal those expectations.

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Your father, Ralph, mentioned how you were always curious growing up. You wanted to know why certain things happened on the court or why a certain play was called. Did you know at a young age that you wanted to get into coaching?

It was my seventh-grade year. When I was a ball boy for the New York Knicks, I just fell in love with the game on a different level. Being around that high level of play just about every day, skipping school and going to games. I was able to see the game of basketball at such a different level than most kids. Being in the locker room, being on the court, rebounding for Michael Jordan, Mark Jackson and Patrick Ewing, and then watching the games and being around practice. I went to just about every home practice.

How has your dad influenced your coaching career?

I think the biggest thing that I’ve taken from my father is how he ran an extremely high-level program and at the same time was a father and a husband. So I think, more than anything, that has always stuck with me. The amount of time and energy he put into the program but the amount of time and energy he still put into his family life.

You worked for Rick Pitino for several years with the Boston Celtics and at Louisville. What did you learn from him that has been influential?

Hard work and passion. He drills it into you as an assistant. You work extremely hard every day. And his passion for the game [and] for player development is infectious. It’s something I carry with me every day.

From your first time as a head coach at Iona to now, how have you grown as a person and a coach?

I think I’ve grown in every aspect. Understanding the responsibilities of running a program, a head coach and the development of players. I’ve changed. I’m a total 180 from where I started, and hopefully, in 10 more years, I’ll be a different 180 than where I am now.

How was your transition from Iona to Seton Hall similar or different from your transition to Maryland?

It’s different. I look back at some of the things I just wasn’t prepared for then, that I’m prepared for now. I learned a lot from the early mistakes that I made, making sure that we’re not doing that here. I think [I’m] more experienced. I mean, you got to learn from what you’ve done at each place you are [at]. I’m 13 years older, and I’m much wiser than when I was 34.

You have been credited for creating tough schedules for your teams. Is that something you learned from Pitino, and how does it improve your team?

It’s something I developed over my years at Seton Hall. I tracked who was making the NCAA Tournament [and] what seeds they were getting. I look at scheduling as probably the most important factor in winning. If you know how to properly schedule the right games at the right time, it helps your team. I also thought it was important to get outside the Big East [Conference] and make sure that we’re playing in other conferences, playing good neutral site games and playing good tournaments. I thought it was an opportunity for my program to be seen at a different level.

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Going into Year One, do you have an idea how you would approach the schedule? How different will it be compared to a couple of years down the road?

Yeah, absolutely. Because some of the schedule is already set, I don’t have as much control. Like the tournament we’re playing in, I think it is in the Mohegan Sun. Some games are already locked in. So I got to spend a couple of years getting out of the cycle that we’re in.

We will still schedule a good schedule for our fans and play competitive games. But that’s a work in progress. Because whenever you take over a job, unfortunately, you’re locked into a lot of things that you have no control over.

The DMV area is one of the best recruiting grounds in the country. And from an outside perspective, it can be easy to recruit top guys since they are in your backyard. But can that also be a challenge since players might not want to stay home and experience life outside of here?

There’s always a balance. You’re not going to get every kid from the DMV to stay home. I think that’s when your fan base says, ‘Oh, I can’t believe this kid left or this kid left.’ I think you just have to look at the kids that you want to fit your program, want to play for you and be at the University of Maryland, and you focus on those kids. There’s going to be a lot of kids that want to go away and there’s going to be a lot of kids that want to stay.

How has the transfer portal impacted recruiting?

I think everybody forgets that kids transferred all the time before. I think the only difference is you brought three transfers in, knowing they were going to replace three seniors. Now, you’re bringing kids in that can play right away for the kids you just lost. So it’s a little bit more immediate. But transfers have always [had] a major impact on college basketball.

With immediate eligibility, how do you find the right balance between transfer players and high school recruits?

I look at it differently. I think you got to look at your current roster. And then you got to sit there and say, ‘OK, how do I build off the current roster? How do I not duplicate what I have on the current roster? You have a kid that played for you for three years, how do I not come in and take what he’s earned?’ At the same time, you make sure you’re bringing freshmen in that can get better and have those transfers and upperclassmen develop those freshmen.

With players able to benefit from NIL, a player’s decision can be viewed as a business decision just as much as an athletic and academic one. How do you deal with NIL when you are recruiting?

I think the good thing is we’ve been very aggressive in our NIL. And growing what we have in our NIL, not only for our current roster but for a future roster. So the University of Maryland is in a very strong place with NIL.

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I think you have to balance the fact that you want to make sure that you have kids that want to come to the University of Maryland to get a great education, have a great experience and play in a great area. But at the same time, being able to make sure that you are being competitive with everyone else in the landscape of college basketball.

What are your thoughts on NIL and this new age of college athletics?

I think if kids were making money off their name, image and likeness, it’s a great thing. Unfortunately, that’s not going on now.

Could you elaborate on that?

Nope. That’s a whole different story.

As you fill out the roster, what do you envision the roster to look like?

I can’t answer that. I mean, we have so many gaps to fill. What we’re trying to do is make sure that we complement everybody that’s on the roster right now. I feel we got a great group of guys returning but making sure that we fill the parts around them and be as good as we can be.

Speaking of the guys returning, one of them is Julian Reese, who turned some heads this past season. What are your thoughts on Julian and the player he can turn out to be?

I think Julian is going to have a monster year. I’ve been so impressed with his work ethic [and] his leadership. I think he’s starting to kind of fill out his body. We’re going to put a lot of work into his game this summer.

How do you formulate expectations? Do you already have expectations in mind, or do they come together once you get all the pieces in place?

I have the same expectation every year to win at the highest level. That doesn’t change anytime in the year. From Day One to Day 365, my expectation is to win at the highest level.

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During your introductory news conference, you said that you wanted to bring the swagger back to Maryland basketball. How will you go about doing so?

I think it’s the way we’re going to play, especially early on. I think it’s getting a lot of local kids that have that swagger. From the gear we wear to how we wear it to who we play. It’s not going to happen overnight, but it’s something that we’re going to work hard to develop.

You also mentioned Maryland is a top 10 program. What will it take to return to that?

I mean, recruiting [and] filling up the Xfinity Center, making this the best home-court advantage in college basketball. Again, I think it’s going to take a lot of hard work and passion. But I think we have a great staff, and I think we have a great university to do it.


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