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Terps

With No. 16 Illinois looming, red-hot No. 22 Maryland men’s basketball will learn its true potential

COLLEGE PARK — After Maryland men’s basketball crushed Louisville on Tuesday night in yet another blowout, first-year coach Kevin Willard celebrated the moment — if only momentarily.

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“It’s great when you are coaching and you are up by 25 [points],” said Willard, who became the first coach in Big Ten Conference history to win each of his first seven games by at least 15 points after the No. 22 Terps defeated the Cardinals, 79-54. “I’ve enjoyed it while it has lasted.”

Amid Maryland’s surprising and impressive 7-0 start, the Terps have restored some life in a fan base that questioned the hiring of Willard in March over popular names such as Iona’s Rick Pitino and Alabama’s Nate Oates. The former Seton Hall coach has Maryland playing at a high level, even though its key players were part of a group that went 15-17 during a disastrous and drama-filled 2021-22 season.

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Maryland has not only won all seven games by comfortable margins, but it’s doing so without facing any significant deficits. The Terps have trailed for only 3:23 in over 280 minutes of game action during its best start since 2019-20.

But the fun might soon come to an end. The Terps kick off a four-game stretch on Friday that features three ranked opponents and will serve as a measuring stick for how good this team really is. They begin the daunting slate against No. 16 Illinois before facing Wisconsin, No. 13 Tennessee and No. 21 UCLA during a 12-day stretch.

Friday night’s game is the Terps’ first ranked matchup since they faced No. 25 Michigan on March 8, 2020, as the No. 9 team in the country.

“I think the good thing about this stretch is we’re going to really figure out some of our strengths and our weaknesses,” Willard said. “It’s interesting that the four teams play with such different play styles from each other, so it’s going to be a really good test for us.”

Maryland forward Julian Reese shoots over Louisville forward Sydney Curry during the second half of Tuesday's game in Louisville, Kentucky. Reese has taken major strides this season, averaging 13.7 points and 7.9 rebounds.

A key reason for the fan base’s excitement — the school announced Wednesday that they have sold out of student tickets for the ranked matchup against the Fighting Illini — is that Maryland has been exciting to watch. The Terps have won by an average margin of 21.9 points, wearing down opponents with relentless full-court pressure and strong perimeter defense. Opponents have averaged 13.9 turnovers while shooting 38.4% from the field and 26.2% from behind the 3-point line.

On offense, the Terps play fast and share the ball. They have thrived scoring in transition, averaging 14.1 fast-break points per game. Senior forward Donta Scott is playing the best basketball of his career, averaging a team-high 15.9 points per game. Sophomore forward Julian Reese has taken major strides, averaging 13.7 points and 7.9 rebounds, while Jahmir Young has enjoyed a smooth transition to the starting point guard role after transferring from Charlotte, averaging 18.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists the past two games.

“We have a lot of talent,” Young said. “I feel like we’re slowly putting that together and we’re still growing.”

Maryland’s continuity, especially on defense, has the team “ahead of schedule,” Willard said, though he knows the Terps’ true potential has not been revealed yet.

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“I didn’t think they would pick up scouting reports as well as they have. I didn’t think we’d be this connected defensively.”

Young said he’s not surprised by Maryland’s impressive start. “We have a lot of experience,” he said, referring to the five seniors on the roster. “We just have been so locked in at practice.”

Scott said he didn’t have any expectations going into the season, noting the team stayed the course and let “progress become action.”

“These guys are working extremely hard [and] it’s been clicking for us,” he added.

Maryland coach Kevin Willard signals a play to his team during the second half of Tuesday's game against Louisville. He said the next four games are "going to be a really good test for us."

Even in the midst of the Terps’ success, it’s hard to dismiss the teams they’ve faced to get to this point. Aside from wins over Saint Louis and Miami (Fla.), the Terps defeated five teams (Niagara, Western Carolina, Binghamton, Coppin State and Louisville) that combined to go 59-136 in 2021-22. Binghamton, Niagara and Coppin State haven’t played in the NCAA Tournament in nearly 20 years while Western Carolina hasn’t participated in March Madness since 1995-96.

Still, the Terps’ first seven games of the season provided a glimpse of their identity. The next four will show how good they really are.

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“If I could go 7-0 and win by 30 [points] every game, I’d sign up for that,” said Willard, who has discussed with his players that competition will get tougher, meaning comfortable victories might not be in the cards much longer.

“What we’ve talked about is more or less sustaining our level of play [and] how we’ve gotten here. I think we can play at a high level as long as we keep practicing at a high level.”

The Fighting Illini will be the first test, as the Terps will be playing in front of their largest crowd of the season against a team that improved to 6-1 by dismantling Syracuse, 73-44, on Tuesday night. Willard praised their ability to spread the floor with forward Coleman Hawkins, who notched a triple-double against the Orange, playing center. Willard also called guard Terrence Shannon Jr. a National Player of the Year candidate. “The way he has been playing [is] unbelievable,” the coach said.

Young, an Upper Marlboro native who played down the street at DeMatha, said he has been dreaming about moments like Friday.

“I’m sure it’ll be hard to sleep tonight, but I’m very excited,” he joked.

No. 16 Illinois at No. 22 Maryland

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Friday, 9 p.m.

TV: Big Ten Network

Radio: 105.7 FM


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