Early on in Maryland men’s basketball’s 2023-24 season, two things about the Terps became clear.
Forward Julian Reese would play a big part in Maryland’s offense, and that same offense would struggle to shoot the ball from beyond the three-point arc.
Unsurprisingly, the Terps’ opponents noticed. Reese got off to a hot start for Maryland and averaged 15.8 points per game in the first ten contests of the season. In the last four, though, the junior has averaged just seven points per game, including a one-point outing at UCLA on Dec. 22 and a scoreless night against No. 1 Purdue on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the Terps rank No. 349 out of 362 Division I teams in three-point percentage, converting on just 27.2 percent of their attempts. It’s led to a common blueprint for opposing coaches, who’ve stacked the inside and forced Maryland to take shots from the perimeter.
“Yeah, without question,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said after being asked if the Boilermakers planned to force the Terps to take outside shots. “… We wanted to clog up [the paint] as much as we could to make it difficult for Jahmir [Young] and obviously Julian Reese.”
Young thrived, scoring 26 points for Maryland in its 67-53 loss, but Reese was quiet. It was his first game without points since his freshman season and the third time in his last four games that he didn’t reach double figures.
Teams have defended Reese in numerous ways throughout the season and can afford to do so aggressively thanks to Maryland’s poor shooting. He began seeing tighter coverage during the first weekend of the season when the Terps traveled to North Carolina for the Asheville Championship.
Davidson and UAB sent doubles or collapsed onto Reese, who was forced to kick it out to open shooters. More often than not, they missed. The Terps shot 11-for-46 from three in those two games and returned home without a win.
Reese has also faced 1-3-1 zones where defenses converged on him. Some opponents have simply sagged off shooters to clog the lane, and others haven’t been shy to foul Reese, who’s shooting 58.7 percent from the free-throw line this season.
“It’s definitely been an adjustment, especially being one of the first options on the team … it just comes with reps as the season goes on,” Reese said after Maryland’s win over Rider on Nov. 28. “Davidson early in the season, they played me a different way and I had to adjust and I was kind of struggling the next game against UAB because they had that 1-3-1 defense and I’m really just learning as I go.”
Reese said in December that the transition was easy in some ways, as he felt his ability to pass out of the post was a strength of his. He added that Maryland coach Kevin Willard tells him in practice just to make the right, simple pass, saying to take a few base hits before going for the home run.
But the Baltimore native didn’t even have many touches as a post-facilitator on Tuesday, as Purdue’s defense, spearheaded by 7-foot-4 reigning national player of the year Zach Edey, made Reese a focal point.
His underwhelming performances as of late, somewhat sparked by the lack of shooting around him, have made things difficult for an already struggling Maryland offense.
“That’s pretty much our biggest issue, [Reese] has kind of struggled at times,” Willard said. “… We got to do a better job of trying to help him get some easy buckets at times to kind of loosen him up, but they did a really good job. They knew we were going to try to go into him. They loaded up the paint, they made it really hard for him to get deep post touches.”
While Willard mentioned that he needs to find ways to get Reese more incorporated, that’s easier said than done due to the team’s inability to stretch opposing defenses.
Similarly, there doesn’t seem to be a clear fix for the shooting struggles. Willard said his team probably should take fewer attempts after going 10-for-27 against Nicholls State, and the Terps have taken 22 threes in each of their three games since.
Maryland shot 28.8 percent from deep in that span and went 5-for-22 against the top-ranked Boilermakers on Tuesday.
“We missed seven wide-open threes in the first half. So I don’t know how much more we can do when you get a wide-open shot,” Willard said. “I’ll try to put a new play in to get a wide, wide, wide-open shot, maybe that will help.”
The shooting struggles and lackluster recent performances from Reese certainly go hand in hand and are key reasons why this season’s 9-5 Maryland squad has taken a step back from Willard’s first year at the helm.