COLLEGE PARK — Forty-eight hours after Maryland men’s basketball suffered one of its worst losses in program history, an 81-46 drubbing at Michigan on New Year’s Day, coach Kevin Willard swiftly walked around the court inside Xfinity Center with a fierce look in his eyes.
The Terps were suddenly reeling, having lost four of six games, including blowout defeats to the Wolverines and then-No. 16 UCLA. Willard paced around the court nonstop, pulling players to the side during team drills and scrimmages, critiquing their every move.
“We can’t get embarrassed like we did,” Willard told his players. “We gotta get back to [beating] teams up.”
After an inspiring 8-0 start that had the Terps ranked as high as 13th in the Associated Press Top 25 poll, they faced a host of problems with no clear solution. They struggled to make shots. They were routinely overwhelmed by their lack of size. They didn’t have a go-to player to carry the offense.
Every concern about the team in the months leading up to the season seemed to bubble to the surface all at once, and Willard was inside the gym on a Tuesday afternoon in January trying to prevent his team from falling apart.
“Getting them to believe in themselves [so] when they aren’t going right, they can [recover],” Willard said. “That’s the biggest challenge.”
Since Maryland’s nightmare in Ann Arbor, the team has flipped the switch. The Terps (20-11, 11-9 Big Ten) won eight of their last 12 regular-season games, and Willard has all but guaranteed that he will be the first coach in program history to make the NCAA Tournament in his first season leading the team.
The Terps are geared up for the Big Ten Tournament, where they are the No. 6 seed and play in a second-round game against either Nebraska or Minnesota on Thursday night in Chicago. They are a projected No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament according to Bracket Matrix, which compiles projections from several analysts.
“Willard [has been] all-in,” senior forward Donta Scott said. “He was willing to make his program one of the best in the country even when people didn’t [view us] like that.”
When Willard stood in front of reporters in October and laid out his vision for the program, he glanced at the banners commemorating Maryland’s 2002 national championship and 2020 Big Ten regular-season title that hung in the rafters.
His message was clear, even if some might have considered it unrealistic at the time: He wanted to win the Big Ten championship and a national title.
“No other expectation is allowed in this program,” said Willard, who became the Terps’ coach last March after 12 seasons at Seton Hall.
He didn’t care if he inherited a team similar to last year’s group that went 15-17 under longtime coach Mark Turgeon and interim coach Danny Manning. He didn’t care if the Terps were ranked 10th in the league’s preseason media poll or if his roster featured a handful of unproven players. He wanted to win now.
“Every day [Willard] has brought a high energy [since he got here],” senior guard Hakim Hart said. “He pushes us to be the best players we can be.”
Maryland’s dominant wins over Niagara, Western Carolina and Binghamton to start the season were unsurprising, but when the Terps dismantled Saint Louis and Miami, which advanced to the Elite Eight last season, expectations changed. When graduate transfer guard Jahmir Young hit a late 3-pointer in the Terps’ win over then-No. 16 Illinois to open conference play in a packed Xfinity Center on Dec. 2, it seemed everyone was back on the bandwagon.
“My main goal was to get people to understand what this program is going to be about,” Willard said after becoming the first coach in program history to start the season 8-0. “I think everyone got a glimpse of what this program is about right now and what it’s going to be about in the future.”
The honeymoon ended quickly, however. The Terps suffered their first loss at Wisconsin, 64-59, then couldn’t recover from an ugly start in a 56-53 defeat to then-No. 7 Tennessee. Less than a week later, they were blown out by 27 points and embarrassed at home by UCLA.
Maryland went from 13th in the nation to unranked, and things didn’t get any better. After a 35-point loss at Michigan and a 14-point defeat at Rutgers, the Terps were 1-3 in league play and looked more worthy of a spot in the National Invitation Tournament than March Madness.
Willard said the team was falling in quicksand, citing actor Keanu Reeves’ line in the film “The Replacements.”
“You’re playing, and you think everything is going fine. Then one thing goes wrong. And then another. And another. You try to fight back, but the harder you fight, the deeper you sink. Until you can’t move ... you can’t breathe ... because you’re in over your head. Like quicksand.”
“That’s what’s happening to us,” Willard said. “They haven’t been together long enough to figure out how in the hell we are gonna get out of this.”
Willard was searching for a player who could lift the Terps out of their rut. He hoped Young would take on that role because of his scoring prowess, but he understood the former DeMatha standout needed time to adjust to a higher level of competition after playing three years at mid-major Charlotte.
“Jahmir has never gone through this before,” Willard said. “I just [can’t] say, ‘Hey, Jahmir, you got to be the alpha.’ That’s not his personality.”
After Young combined for 17 points on 7-for-21 shooting in losses to Michigan and Rutgers, he became the alpha dog Willard was searching for. He recorded 30 points and 11 rebounds to lead Maryland past then-No. 24 Ohio State, then scored 26 points in the Terps’ revenge win over the Wolverines. With each passing game, he looked more and more like a potential first-team All-Big Ten player.
Young and Maryland’s emphasis on attacking the paint sparked a four-game winning streak that featured an impressive win over then-No. 21 Indiana, which defeated top-ranked Purdue a few days later.
The Terps’ win over the Hoosiers was a perfect illustration of Willard’s coaching ability and the team’s relentlessness. Maryland won despite shooting 34% from the field — its worst rate in a double-digit win since Jan. 15, 2012.
“We’re fighters,” freshman swingman Noah Batchelor said. “We work hard every day. There’s no other way to put it.”
One thing about this Maryland team that shouldn’t be overlooked is Willard’s undying trust in his players. He has always given them the green light to shoot, even if they are struggling. Entering Sunday, Maryland ranked tied for ninth in the Big Ten and 265th in the nation in 3-point shooting at 32.58%.
“[Willard] having trust in us on the offensive end is [important],” Scott said. “Sometimes it can be tricky because you don’t know what players [will] do. But him having trust in us has made us believe in ourselves.”
Willard’s trust in his players culminated Feb. 16, when the Terps dismantled then-No. 3 Purdue, 68-54, in a sold-out Xfinity Center. After Young finished with a game-high 20 points and added five rebounds, four assists and two steals and fans stormed the court, the transfer guard raved about his new coach.
“We can’t ask for a coach that believes in us any more than he does,” Young said. “He told us that we earned it.”
This season, Maryland has taken major beatings, struggled with its shooting and went just 1-9 in conference road games, dropping its last two to Ohio State and Penn State after capping a 10-0 conference home slate with a victory over then-No. 21 Northwestern. But the Terps have continued to fight through all of their deficiencies to put themselves in a position to play meaningful games in the madness of March.
“We’ve gotten smacked around a couple of times, [but] I think a lot of teams might have not showed up the next day and battled the way this team has come back [after] a bad loss,” Willard said. “This team has shown tremendous toughness and keeps fighting.”
Big Ten Tournament second round
No. 6 seed Maryland vs. No. 11 Nebraska/No. 14 Minnesota
Thursday, approx. 9 p.m.
TV: Big Ten Network