Shortly after the final buzzer sounded in Birmingham, Alabama, ending the first season of Maryland men’s basketball under Kevin Willard, the coach had a reflective talk with his staff.
Willard knew right after the Terps’ second-round NCAA tournament loss to Alabama that they needed to add size and athleticism — a weakness he said limited his team’s ceiling.
So that’s exactly what they did. Though Willard’s second season hasn’t kicked off, the effects are already evident to the coach.
“We haven’t practiced longer than an hour and 26 minutes because our practices are so athletic and so physical,” Willard said at Big Ten media day last week. “We’ve looked like a Big Ten team and last year we had to really fight to be a Big Ten team … I think we can compete at a little bit higher level because of that.”
Willard brought in what he called his best freshman class ever, highlighted by four-star wings DeShawn Harris-Smith and Jamie Kaiser Jr. He also landed former Indiana forward Jordan Geronimo through the transfer portal.
“Harris-Smith is by far the most talented player, probably the most physically gifted basketball player I’ve ever been able to coach so far,” Willard said. “Jamie Kaiser was a former quarterback, played football. So they’ve been able to come in with Jordan and really embrace how we want to play, at the level we want to play at.”
The coach believes his freshmen class is ready for the physicality that comes at the collegiate level, a hurdle he said first-year players commonly struggle with. Willard praised Harris-Smith’s intensity, and his teammates have lauded the freshman’s ability to get downhill and attack the basket — something his 6-foot-5, 215-pound frame helps him with.
Kaiser Jr., standing 6-foot-6 and weighing 205 pounds, also adds size and aims to utilize it similarly at the rim.
“I feel like me in transition is very underrated because I like to use my body and my shoulders to get downhill in transition,” Kaiser Jr. said. “Maybe not so much in the half court, which is something I gotta work on, but with the way we press and stuff like that, getting a steal, trying to finish at the rim is something that I don’t think people have seen me do that much.”
Geronimo, a redshirt junior, was one of three transfers to join Maryland along with sophomores Chance Stephens from Loyola Marymount and Mady Traore from New Mexico State. Stephens is currently injured and Willard touted Traore’s upside, but Geronimo figures to see the most playing time among the transfers.
Geronimo averaged about 12 minutes per game in his last two seasons at Indiana, but the 6-foot-6 forward’s skill set and experience in the Big Ten led to Willard labeling him a “game-changer” and “Swiss Army knife” for the Terps.
“We really wanted to have someone that knew how to play the game, but at the same time could really help us athletically,” Willard said. “Although he’s not [6-foot-11], Jordan is as athletic as a player as I’ve seen in a while … I can play him at the four, I can play him at the three. Defensively, I can play him one through five.”
Geronimo primarily played power forward at Indiana, but Willard has experimented with him alongside Julian Reese at small forward or as a small-ball center to stretch the floor. Geronimo’s utility and 7-foot wingspan has allowed Willard flexibility to find optimal lineups for Maryland.
“It’s new, I’ll tell you that. But it’s been a fun experience,” Geronimo said. “Just being able to play the three, and I’ve played some five too — different spots and positions on the floor, it’s just allowed me to really expand easily and test the waters to see how versatile I really am.”
Regardless of where Geronimo plays and what lineup Willard rolls out, the second-year coach has more flexibility, size and athleticism with his additions — which he thinks raises Maryland’s ceiling from the foundation he set for the program during year one at the helm.