Coach Willard starts Maryland tenure in opener vs Niagara

COLLEGE PARK, Md. (AP) — Kevin Willard could have taken the job at Maryland, looked at a program that hasn’t been a real factor in the NCAA Tournament in a while, and started a major overhaul.

Instead, the Terrapins’ new coach wants the transition to be a bit smoother.

“I wanted to respect the guys that stayed,” Willard said. “I wanted to make sure that they graduate, they left, having the opportunity to make sure they could prove what they’re all about.”

Willard will make his debut as Maryland’s coach Monday night when the Terrapins open the season against Niagara. He took over after Maryland finished below .500 in 2021-22. The Terps and coach Mark Turgeon parted ways in December, leaving Danny Manning in the job on an interim basis for the rest of the season.

With the transfer portal such a big part of college basketball, it’s possible for a new coach to make over a roster pretty quickly, but Turgeon said he made a point of not bringing in players who were going to displace key returnees. Forward Donta Scott and guard Hakim Hart, two regular starters from last season, are back.

Scott is aware of a lot will be expected of him in terms of leadership.

“This year I know that I have to step up and be more of a vocal leader. More of a guy that shows younger guys mistakes I have made in my past and that they may be making now,” he said.

The 47-year-old Willard previously coached at Seton Hall and Iona, so he has experience taking over at schools where basketball isn’t overshadowed by a major football power. What’s different about Maryland is that two decades ago, the Terps won a national title in their second of back-to-back Final Fours. There’s enough recent history of major success.

That can be a burden but also a plus.

“We wanted to embrace the tradition and the greatness of this program,” Willard said. “I thought coming in, I really wanted to get the former players on board. Not that they weren’t, but I really wanted to embrace them for us, get them involved, get what they wanted out of the program. To me, that was really important. It wasn’t just going to be my vision.”

As for what this season will look like, Willard sounds willing to speed up a bit after his Seton Hall teams were sort of a mixed bag when it came to pace. According to kenpom.com, the Pirates ranked as high as 60th in adjusted tempo in 2010-11 — Willard’s first season there — but as low as 264th in 2020-21.

Maryland was 211th last season.

There may be an adjustment period, because although Scott and Hart are important, the Terps added some significant transfers such as guards Jahmir Young, Don Carey and Jahari Long and forward Patrick Emilien.

“We’re going to play probably way too fast. We’re going to shoot a ton of 3s, we’re going to press, we’re going to get after it,” Willard said. “Probably at times, we won’t look good just because I have 13 guys that played five different styles, and now they’re trying to get my style. I think, again, we’re laying down the groundwork for the future.”

Although Maryland went 15-17 last season, the Terps aren’t that far removed from a 2019-20 season in which they were tied for the conference title before the NCAA Tournament was called off because of the pandemic.

It’s the type of season that will inform expectations going forward.

“It’s going to be the same every year. It’s going to be Big Ten championship, national championship,” Willard said. “That’s the goal of this program.”

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Follow Noah Trister at https://twitter.com/noahtrister

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