After a scrappy win at home against Michigan, Maryland men’s basketball coach Kevin Willard said almost every remaining game on its schedule is a must-win after the Terps’ poor start to the season.
Maryland was still desperately searching for its first marquee victory of the year. While a trip to then-No. 10 Illinois provided an opportunity, it was a position the Terps have struggled in before.
However, after a familiar slow start on the road, Maryland put on its best overall performance of the season. The Terps showcased their suffocating defense and took care of the ball in a 76-67 win over a top-10 Illini team away from home.
Maryland improved to 4-12 on the road under Willard and earned its second Big Ten away win under his tutelage. Sunday’s triumph wasn’t only the Terps’ best road win under Willard, but their best in more than three years.
Maryland hadn’t won an away game against an AP top-10 opponent since 2020, although there were no fans in the Badgers’ stands during its 70-64 win against then-No. 6 Wisconsin due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Terps’ last victory against a top-10 opponent on the road before then was in January 2008 at then-No. 1 North Carolina.
“We’ve been playing so much better on the road, obviously, going out to UCLA [and winning],” Willard said. “Unfortunately, the Minnesota game, I thought we played good, just we had so many guys that had the flu that it just was sloppy on the offensive end, but we gave ourselves a chance to win.”
Maryland’s performance meant more than shaking off a poor record on the road as it provided the Terps with a crucial quad one win, an important element in the NET rankings, which are used to evaluate a team’s resume for the postseason on Selection Sunday.
The Terps, who were previously without a quad one or two win, jumped 19 spots to No. 99 in the NET rankings with Sunday’s win. Claiming a marquee victory early in Big Ten play was imperative to Maryland’s postseason hopes after its poor start to the year.
The Terps’ pair of early losses to Davidson and UAB are still classified as quad three defeats and remain major blemishes on Maryland’s resume — the Terps finished last season without a quad three or four loss and No. 32 in the NET rankings.
“It’s definitely on my mind, our mind as a team. This win puts us a little bit back into shape to get [to the NCAA tournament] and especially the next win, we’ll definitely be there,” Julian Reese said.
Sunday’s victory provided the first step to improving Maryland postseason hopes. It also showcased how this iteration of the Terps can be successful despite so many shortcomings early in the season.
Maryland’s defensive unit boasts the 16th-ranked defense per KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency, which measures points allowed per 100 possessions adjusted for the quality of the opponent. The Terps have held opponents to an adjusted field goal percentage of just 44.8, the 11th-best mark in the country, per KenPom. They limited the Illini to 32.8 percentage shooting from the field and 27.3 percent shooting from three on Sunday.
Maryland’s biggest issues have come on the offensive end. The Terps have recorded more turnovers than assists this season, but Maryland finally took care of the ball against Illinois.
Willard’s squad recorded a season-high 14 assists against a high-major opponent and a season-low seven turnovers against a high-major opponent, three of which came in the final two minutes of the game.
The Terps’ tenacious defense and tidiness in possession helped them overcome flaws that have been apparent all season.
Maryland’s poor three-point shooting continued, although timely contributions from the same left corner by Jordan Geronimo and DeShawn Harris-Smith helped the Terps maintain their lead in the second half. Maryland has the second-worst three-point percentage of all high-major teams at just 27.5 percent.
The Terps also still relied heavily on their returning starters to supply scoring. Reese, Jahmir Young and Donta Scott combined to score 57 of 76 points, 75 percent of the team’s total.
The trio has been responsible for 60.9 percent of Maryland’s points all season as the Terps have struggled to find scoring sources outside their experienced returners, a fact Young referenced after Sunday’s marquee win.
“We have three offensive players and we’re the best defensive team in the Big Ten,” Young said. “So if we’re able to take care of the ball on the offensive end, we have a great chance.”
Sunday’s top-10 victory at Illinois gave some insight into what it might take for this year’s version of Maryland to be successful despite certain deficiencies, a formula that wasn’t always apparent early in the season.
With more contests against tough opponents throughout the remainder of their Big Ten slate, the Terps will hope similar performances can provide needed boosts to their resume and, in turn, their hopes of playing in late March. However, Willard has no interest looking that far in the future with the importance of each impending game.
“We just gotta keep playing, just focus on playing better,” Willard said in response to a question about how a win over Illinois improves Maryland’s postseason resume. “That’s all we got to do, just focus on Northwestern and us playing better.”