BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – While everyone was panicking, Kevin Willard grinned. He saw that. Watched his team fall behind. I’ve seen his team play outside of college park and look askew. When approached by CBS sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson at the start of the opening round game of the NCAA tournament with Maryland behind West Virginia, he responded with total…complete…indifference.
“If you’ve seen us on the road before,” he quipped, “it’s not bad to be nine down after 10 minutes.”
Willard coaches his own way. Maryland plays its own way. And this is what it looks like. The Terrapins spent the next 30 minutes on Thursday wrestling for loose balls, setting up hard screens, changing defenses and riding a collection of experienced grinders to a 67-65 win that cleared the paint from the Legacy Arena floor.
Willard paced the sidelines as he does. The man is intense. Don’t suffer fools. serious stuff. No BS. Black eyes set deep in a bald head, no pupils. He looks at things backwards, disbelieving anyone who is wrong. It’s his whole thing. If Guy Ritchie cast a college basketball coach, it would be Willard.
“I like the no-nonsense, I like the toughness, and I like how when you really look at him he looks a little crazy at times,” said Maryland athletic director Damon Evans.
Add it up and Willard is the guy who, when he takes on a program, runs it in his own image.
So Maryland basketball is now Kevin Willard. Willard is now Maryland Basketball.
Thursday was a requirement fulfilled in year 1 of this new era. The Terps entered this tournament after winning 14 of their last 15 NCAA first round games of 1998. Willard took what was left of Mark Turgeon’s tenure and at least lived up to that expectation.
Donta Scott could have left College Park when Willard was hired. But he remembered and liked the old Seton Hall coach from the recruitment process. Hakim Hart could have left Maryland as well, but he also bonded with Willard. Julian Reese? He would have had a number of suitors if he had entered the transfer portal like his sister, LSU star Angel Reese, did last year. But Reese met Willard and, despite the two being very different cats, found a common bond. Reese returned for his sophomore year.
“There’s something about being loyal,” Reese said Thursday. “He gets me going and I feed off his energy. I wanted to play for someone like that.”
By keeping this group intact, Willard avoided the wasteland launch that so often accompanies regime change. He brought his team here on Thursday for an old-fashioned border war on the Potomac River against the Mountaineers.
And who led the way?
Reese, a 6-foot-9 center with boundless talent but an enigmatic streak, scored 17 points, tacked nine rebounds and delivered one of his best performances in a Maryland jersey. The terps needed it. West Virginia came with a list of grown men and oversized shoulders. Post presence was required in a game with 14 made 3-pointers together. Reese brought it. He played 37 minutes and his 2:45 left dunk gave the Terps a 64-59 lead.
Scott did his typical thing. At one end he guarded relentlessly, at the other he posted West Virginia defenders. Sticking his tongue out the side of his mouth, he dodged opponents, created his own space, and scored with a variety of pivots and pumps. He finished with 11 points and eight rebounds.
Hart lived up to his name. Played every 39 minutes. 15 points scored, each and everyone defended. He drove into the chest of West Virginia guard Kadrian Davis in less than eight minutes, turning one and one. His go-ahead dunk from an easy ball scramble at 3:30 left finally got the terps into shape.
No frills. Basketball players doing basketball games.
And right in the middle is Willard, a coach neither of whom originally signed on to play for. They signed with Mark Turgeon, played for him and then rode through what felt like an endless coaching search after Turgeon resigned in December 2021 with caretaker coach Danny Manning.
“They knew what I was going to do,” Willard said of his arrival at College Park, those early encounters with the roster he inherited. “I couldn’t go in there and bully her. … I was just telling them what I’m going to do. I wanted this year for her because last year was an extremely difficult year for the kids. I told them we’re going to have a lot of fun, we’re going to work hard and we’re going to win.”
This happened inside.
Outwardly, Willard came to Maryland as a non-member of the club. For a program with the heritage, pedigree, and following of a Top 20 program, he was hired from outside the family. Every strand of his DNA is linked to New York and New Jersey and the Northeast. He’s Big East, not Big Ten. He left a 12-year tenure at Seton Hall for College Park.
His employment came with a certain risk. His personality, in a place where no one feels a sentimental connection to him? An interesting if not strange dynamic.
But early returns say it’s working.
“When people started talking about him, they tried to compare him personally to Turg,” said Evans, who gave Willard a seven-year contract worth nearly $30 million. “I saw something else. I saw a small edge. And that’s not a blow to Turg. When I say Edge, in Maryland we’re a tough, hard-nosed, brave group. I like to say we’re workers in Maryland. A lot of our fans are from the New York and New Jersey area and he just seemed to have a little bit of Gary (Williams) in him.”
“He had that same kind of personality to say, ‘I’ll do what needs to be done in Maryland, but I won’t kiss anyone’s ass for doing it,'” Evans said. “And he came in and did things his way.”
And year 1 is not done yet. Maryland gets a shot at No. 1 overall seed Alabama on Saturday. The program will be appearing on Sweet 16 for only the second time since 2003. Can Willard do it? Well, he will have a new home for a long time.
(Photo: Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via AP Images)