All preseason, first-year Maryland head coach Kevin Willard and his team have preached one word on the defensive end: intensity.
With Willard barking out instructions from the sideline, the Terps set the tone in the early going of Tuesday’s game, forcing seven Binghamton turnovers in the first five minutes and 15 by game’s end. Whether it was forcing travels, intercepting passes or snatching loose balls, Maryland imposed its will and raced out to a 23-6 lead by the time 10 minutes had elapsed.
“I think we’ve come out with really good defensive intensity … these guys are sticking to what we wanted to do from a gameplan standpoint, I think they’ve been really good,” Willard said. “You know, I think we’ve set the tone early in games with our defensive intensity so I’ve been really pleased.”
The Terps controlled the flow of Tuesday’s game from the opening tip to the final buzzer, improving to 3-0 with a 76-52 win over Binghamton. It was the last of three consecutive home games to start the season for Maryland, which has played an exciting and hectic style of basketball.
Playing with maximum intensity for 40 minutes requires a deep bench, and Willard hasn’t been afraid to mix up his lineups and give opponents different looks all game long. Against the Bearcats, 13 players saw the court, 10 of which played double-digit minutes.
“That first unit has come out with great defensive intensity so I’ve kept them in there a little bit longer, but I felt the whole bench really played well,” Willard said.
Senior guard Hakim Hart led the Terps with 13 points in the first half, but the senior — an experienced holdover from last year’s team — admitted Monday that his favorite play to make is a steal, and he was one of six Maryland players with at least one Tuesday, finishing with two.
“Getting a steal for me is like, oh man,” Hart said with a grin on Monday. “I get a steal, it’s like an open floor, I can just dunk it or finish.”
“Sometimes you try to look for steals, you go and cheat the play and give them easy opportunities to score. So we just knew that once we got those steals it would bring us energy, but we had to stay locked on not trying to run passing lanes and not trying to cheat plays,” senior forward Donta Scott, who finished with 10 points, a team -leading nine rebounds and a steal of his own, added.
Those takeaways can be key for setting up an offense and preventing opponents from getting set down low, and as was the case in its previous game against Western Carolina, Maryland had no trouble establishing itself in the paint, scoring its first 16 points in the key and dominating on the boards, grabbing 26 first-half rebounds to Binghamton’s 12.
Sophomore forward Julian Reese was the catalyst for Maryland’s success down low once again, matching his career-high — set in the Terps’ previous game — with 19 points and adding seven rebounds. His 38 points over the last two games are the most he’s recorded in a two-game span during his young career at Maryland.
Reese pointed to his increased physicality as a reason for his recent success.
“I can definitely tell the difference within the stats and on the court,” Reese said. “First game, I didn’t really do those type of things … I made sure I did it in the next game and now I feel like it’s just helping my game overall.”
Redshirt freshman guard Ike Cornish, who, like Reese, hails from Baltimore, redshirted last season due to injury and was a four-star prospect coming out of high school. He showed glimpses of his potential Tuesday night, converting two athletic finishes at the rim late in the first half. He finished with a career-high nine points.
“That means a lot to me,” Reese said of Cornish’s success. “Ike’s been working hard, really hard. Last season, when he had that redshirt season, he was like one of the hardest workers I know, really, and I feel like he just deserves it.”
While the lead was never in jeopardy, Maryland’s defensive intensity waned a bit as the game continued, with Binghamton scoring 15 points in the final 5:45 of the first half and pacing the Terps in the first few minutes of the second.
Those issues coincided with the Terps’ shooting percentage slowly decreasing. Maryland had no issue feeding the ball to the post and driving at will against the undersized Bearcats, but when it faces stronger opponents — both literally and figuratively — it will need to shoot the ball better from outside.
Willard promised an offensive scheme that emphasized running up and down the court with pace and shooting plenty of threes, but he also admitted that it might look ugly at times. For better or worse, his team delivered on all three of those promised Tuesday, recording 15 fast break points but also shooting a miniscule percentage from three-point range, hitting just four of its 20 attempts.
“I wouldn’t say we’re all the way there,” Scott said of the Terps adapting to Willard’s style of play. “But every day we’re improving. We’re just getting better every day with the stuff that he tries to instill in us.”
Through three games, the Terps are shooting just 25.4% from beyond the arc. Key shot-makers like graduate guard Don Carey and Scott struggling to make the most of their opportunities can be chalked up to an early-season slump, but with better competition on the horizon, they will get challenged by their coach to heat up.
“I’m starting to get a little worried, to be honest with you … we’re settling a little bit for the first shot and I think that’s just a little bit of early-season jitters, early-season offense,” Willard said.
Maryland has cruised through its first three games but is yet to face any competition from a team close to its ability. That will change this upcoming weekend, where the capability of this year’s Terps squad will become clearer in back-to-back games against Saint Louis — one of the country’s best mid-major teams — and either Miami or Providence, both of which made the Sweet 16 last season.
“Even though we’ve been won by 20, there’s going to be nights where we’re not up by that margin of points,” Scott said. “We just need to keep relying on staying consistent on our defense and staying consistent on the little things that make us win games, like being more physical in the paint, locking in on getting those paint touches and making those early assists out of the paint .”
Three things to know
1. Three-point shooting struggles continue. All indications are that the Terps are going to continue letting shots fly from three, but they are going to need to start making them to compete with teams that won’t concede points in the paint with ease. It’s not time to hit the panic button quite yet, but until those shots start falling, the pressure will continue to mount on Maryland’s shooters.
2. The Terps turned turnovers into points. Not only did Maryland effectively disrupt Binghamton’s offense and generate turnovers, but it turned those takeaways into points, recording 19 points off turnovers Tuesday. For comparison, Binghamton had zero points off turnovers, showing the Terps’ ability to get back on defense after giving the ball away on seven occasions.
3. Maryland did what it needed to do in its first three games. Maryland’s schedule is laden with easy games to begin the Kevin Willard era, and it avoided any upsets in its first three. The Terps have won by at least 20 points in every game to start their 2022-23 campaign, easily handling Niagara, Western Carolina and Binghamton. Next, they’ll get their first real challenge of the season against a Saint Louis team that has its eyes set on competing for an Atlantic 10 title.