MINNEAPOLIS — In Maryland men’s basketball’s 65-51 win against Rutgers in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament, Julian Reese became the 61st Terp to record 1,000 points in program history.

But the junior big man’s greatest contributions came on the other side of the ball.

“Obviously the last couple games defensively we hadn’t been what we were all season,” coach Kevin Willard said. “I challenged them to come back defensively, and they answered the bell.”

A big reason for that improvement was the return of Reese, who was out for Maryland’s loss to Penn State on Sunday in which the Terps allowed a joint-season high of 85 points. Maryland’s defensive rating of 96.4 with Reese on the court is in the 97th percentile of defenses across the nation — when the junior is off the court, it’s 110.8 and in the 28th percentile, per CBB Analytics.

Reese’s ability to crash the glass and protect the rim — and the team’s inability to replicate that with him off the court — was apparent throughout the Terps’ dominant win in Minneapolis.

“He knows our drop coverage really well. He’s a smart basketball player. So it makes life on everybody else a little bit easier,” Willard said. “And he’s 6-foot-10, he’s physical, and he throws his body around, which really helps in this league.”

[Maryland men’s basketball cruises past Rutgers in first round of Big Ten tourney, 65-51]

The Nittany Lions rank second-to-last in the conference in rebounds per game but grabbed 21 more than the Reese-less Terps Sunday. But with him back against the Scarlet Knights, who grab the fourth-most boards in the Big Ten, Maryland won the rebounding battle by 12.

His presence, or lack thereof, was also apparent in the opposing big man’s numbers. Qudus Wahab notched a season-high 19 points while tallying 15 rebounds for Penn State, while Cliff Omoruyi scored a season-low two points on Wednesday for Rutgers.

Julian Reese during during Maryland men’s basketball’s 65-51 win against Rutgers on March 13, 2024. (Jordan Budney/The Diamondback)

“Last game when I was out against Penn State we kind of gave up a lot of paint points, and they were able to get into the paint a lot and [get] offensive rebounds,” Reese said. “I feel like I took care of business down there for the team and was able to hold it down.”

Reese was kept out of the lineup on Sunday with an ankle injury. He said he tweaked it last Wednesday and Willard said he wanted to err on the side of caution. The Terps would’ve been a bottom-four seed in the conference tournament and played in the first round regardless of the result in University Park.

Willard added that given the number of minutes Reese’s played — the 13th-most in the Big Ten — he had to “protect his player.”

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Reese was dressed and warming up with the team on Sunday after being listed as questionable but ended up spending the night on the bench. His absence certainly didn’t quiet any rumblings from fans about him potentially entering the transfer portal after the season.

“Just focus on the task at hand,” Reese said. “I like my guys in here, just staying with them and not worrying about stuff like that.”

The task at hand is trying to put together an improbable run to win the Big Ten championship, Maryland’s only hope of earning an NCAA tournament bid and salvaging what’s been a remarkably underwhelming season.

Almost all of their success this year has come from the defensive end, where Reese has anchored the paint. If his defensive impact wasn’t apparent throughout the season, it was evident in the Terps’ last two contests.

Julian Reese during during Maryland men’s basketball’s 65-51 win against Rutgers on March 13, 2024. (Jordan Budney/The Diamondback)