Coach Kevin Willard kicked off his Maryland tenure on a high note with a 71-49 win over Niagara on Monday night.
From sophomore Julian Reese struggling in the first half to the importance of their perimeter defense, here are three takeaways from the Terps’ 46th straight home-opening victory dating to the 1977-78 season.
Willard preaches patience with Julian Reese
Heading into the season, all eyes were on Reese, a former St. Frances standout, to take a big step forward in his second year with the program. But on Monday, Reese showed displayed some of the same deficiencies from last season.
Reese had seven points and seven rebounds and Maryland outscored Niagara by 16 with him on the floor, but the majority of that production came in the second half as Niagara wore down. In the first, he didn’t take a single shot attempt, which Willard attributed to not giving the 6-foot-9 forward enough touches, and was largely a nonfactor.
On defense, Willard thought Reese needed to be a bigger presence down low — the Purple Eagles grabbed 13 offensive rebounds while outscoring the Terps 34-26 in the paint. Reese also picked up two of his three fouls in the first half as he was caught defending near the 3-point line instead of being near the basket.
Still, Willard is not concerned about his starting big man.
“Julian has had a tough two years,” Willard said. “COVID really screwed him in his senior year [of high school]. He didn’t really have a typical freshman year, so you’re looking pretty much at a freshman right now.”
Perimeter defense will be essential this season
The Terps’ lack of size on the interior showed against a big Niagara team, as the Purple Eagles, who were picked to finish eighth among 11 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference teams in the media’s preseason poll, continuously got baskets around the rim while crashing the glass. They outscored Maryland 20-10 in the paint while collecting 17 rebounds in the first half.
“We didn’t do a good job, especially in the first half and early second,” transfer guard Jahmir Young said of the Terps’ rebounding efforts. “[The Purple Eagles] were out hustling us, and they were tougher. That was our biggest drop-off and why they stayed in the game.”
It’s still early and Big Ten Conference play is a month away, but because its interior defense looks to be a work in progress, Maryland’s perimeter defense will need to be relied upon to get stops, limit outside shots and wear opponents down.
Fortunately for the Terps, their wing players did that and more against Niagara. They forced 12 turnovers and had nine steals, and they took advantage of Niagara’s mistakes, scoring 17 points off those turnovers.
For 40 minutes, Niagara’s offensive identity was limited strictly to scoring around the rim. The Purple Eagles went 0-for-6 from the 3-point line and didn’t attempt a jump shot until the nine-minute mark of the first half.
During the team’s media day last month, Willard and the players alluded to a style of basketball that required being in top shape. On Monday, the Terps opened the game with a full-court press and didn’t stop until the clock hit zero in the second half.
“I love it,” Young said. “It was tough at first getting in shape to be able to get up and down, but now that we are in control of it, I feel like we can play tough.”
Willard has the players that can play this style of defense. Junior guard Ian Martinez was active, recording a team-high five steals. His size allows him to defend against both guard positions and the small forward. Junior guard Jahari Long and senior Hakim Hart also logged solid minutes on the defensive end.
The bench rotation is still a work in progress
Willard’s biggest critique of Monday’s victory was on his bench rotation, though he blamed himself for that.
After the Terps jumped out to a commanding 24-10 lead, Maryland lost its offensive rhythm, and Niagara was able to cut the deficit to four points early in the second. Willard attributed it to the lack of chemistry among certain lineups he put on the floor.
“We were in a good offensive rhythm, and then I put two lineups together that haven’t practiced, and that was evident,” he said.
Willard recalled moments late in the first half when Maryland’s offense looked stationary.
“I put in terrible lineups,” Willard said. “We didn’t know what the heck we were doing, so we just started standing around. But I’m trying to see what certain guys can do and get guys game experience. It was bad coaching.”
Early on, it’s going to be a chess match for Willard to figure out which lineups and rotations work. Against Niagara, Maryland’s starting five of Young, guard Don Carey, Hart, Scott and Reese were on the floor together for 39.8% of the game, according to KenPom.
Maryland’s second-most used lineup featured Martinez in the backcourt with Young. But perhaps the most questionable lineup consisted of Martinez, Long and transfer forward Patrick Emilien. Although Martinez and Long were solid defense, they didn’t provide offensive support, combining to shoot 2-for-7 from the floor. Emilien scored four points on 1-for-3 shooting in 14 minutes.
Western Carolina at Maryland
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