Kevin Willard is bringing swagger back to Maryland basketball, will the Terps be ranked?

Kevin Willard is bringing swagger back to Maryland basketball, will the Terps be ranked?

By the time Big Ten play begins, Maryland basketball’s Hall of Fame Tipoff championship will be a distant memory with little effect on how the Terps are viewed. Their wins at the event, blowouts of projected NCAA Tournament St. Louis and Miami, will be valuable resume boosters, but no one remembers early-season tournament titles.

“That’s good, but that’s not the big one we’re betting at. We’re not happy. That’s a nice little trophy for the office. We’re going after the big one,” Maryland coach Kevin Willard told his team amid a bouncing, water-spraying locker room celebration on Sunday afternoon in Connecticut.

But for a team most predicted as a rebuilding afterthought, it was a big deal at the moment. Willard’s players erupted when he entered the locker room after their 88-70 win over Miami, screaming and throwing water on their first-year coach.

It was a deserved celebration. It’s early, but Maryland (5-0), picked to finish 10th or lower in nearly every preseason Big Ten ranking, has been a revelation. The Terps have won every game by at least 18 points, playing a selfless and relentless style of basketball reminiscent of the Gary Williams days. That’s not to say Willard is Williams, of course — a Final Four is required to begin any such comparisons — but the New York native has brought swagger back to College Park.

It’s easy to see Willard’s players love him already, not just by watching the celebration, but by how hard they’re playing for him and their social media posts expressing their adoration for him.

Maryland opened the season ranked No. 58 by, the universally cited college basketball analytics site. Among the site’s myriad advanced stats, a few stand out about Maryland: Willard’s team ranks 19th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, 14th in two-point shooting percentage, 11th in steal percentage. The site’s constantly updated numbers project has 22-9 record, 12-8 in the Big Ten. Those results would be far outdistance preseason projections for the team, which virtually no one had as an NCAA Tournament team.

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Individually, KenPom grades senior wing hakim hart as the 46th most efficient player in the country offensively, sophomore center Julian Reese 102nd-most efficient and Donta Scott 232nd (Scott was sensational in Connecticut, scoring 24 points in each game, but shot 5-15 in the previous game). Reese’s numbers are eye-opening; he’s 20th nationally in effective field goal percentage, 53rd in offensive rebound percentage and 50th in two-point field goal percentage. Mind you, these rankings are out of roughly 4,500 players in college basketball.

It’s been a huge leap for the former top-50 recruit, who showed flashes of his vast potential last season as a raw, skinny freshman, but also struggled. He’s bigger, more confident and starting to produce Jalen Smith vibes.

“I think Julian’s made some great improvements. It’s been nice having him. I haven’t had a center in about five years that can flash out and catch and play high-post basketball,” Willard said on Sunday.

They’ve also played stingy defense without fouling. point guard Jahmir Young ranks 59th nationally in fewest fouls committed per 40 minutes and Hart ranks 100th. Another nugget: unheralded transfer Patrick Emilien ranks 113th nationally in block percentage, providing rim protection off the bench and making Willard look good for plucking him from off the radar.

The attack has been balanced: Scott(16.8 PPG), Reese (13.2), Hart (12.4), Young (12.2 ) and Donald Carey (8.4).

Now, the question from every Maryland fan is, will they be ranked in today’s AP Poll? They have a good chance based on the handful of voters who’ve Tweeted their ballots: UConn beat writer Dave Borges (No. 11), Matt Berman (Roanoke Times, No. 19), Jerry Carino (Asbury Park Press, No. 19 ) and Clayton Collier (ABC Memphis, N. 21).

Of course, early-season rankings mean little; Maryland was ranked at some point during six of the past eight seasons under Mark Turgeonbut finished the season in the top 25 ounce in the past six years.

I think these guys understand that I also think it’s their personalities, you know, again we have unbelievably high-character kids who want to win and they understand what it takes to win and they’re bringing it every night,” Willard said Sunday. “And they’re getting rewarded. They’re getting rewarded for their hard work and their effort they’re putting in. And that’s what matters to me.”

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