Willard's Terrapins on the rise after stellar home season
COLLEGE PARK, Md. (AP) — After coaching Maryland to one last sterling performance at home last weekend, Kevin Willard reflected on the spirited crowd that cheered his team.
“To be honest with you, I just sit back every once in a while and just watch,” Willard said. “It's a fun place to play and a fun place to watch a game.”
That's been especially true this season. After arriving from Seton Hall to take over the Terrapins, Willard has Maryland on track to reach the NCAA Tournament, and a big part of the team's improvement has come at home, where the Terps went 16-1 and did not lose a conference game.
Not only has Maryland been tough to beat in College Park, but the team has drawn big crowds and brought some excitement back to this fan base — no small feat for a program that's less than a decade removed from leaving the ACC and joining the Big Ten.
“I think the fan base really got behind this group," Willard said. "I think they appreciated how hard they work, how hard they play, and the students have really turned out.”
Willard took over a team that finished under .500 last season after parting ways with coach Mark Turgeon in December. Now he's reached 20 wins and has Maryland ranked in this week's AP Top 25.
It's not a surprise that Maryland can compete in this league — the Terps tied for the Big Ten title in 2020 — but it may still be a while before matchups against Indiana and Purdue whet the appetite in College Park the way those clashes against Duke and North Carolina used to. That's why it was noteworthy when fans stormed the court after a Feb. 16 victory over then-No. 3 Purdue.
And it was impressive when Maryland's home arena was packed Sunday for a matchup against Northwestern. Sure, it was the final home game of the season, and the Wildcats have a good team this year — but they're hardly a longtime rival for the Terps.
Maryland won that game 75-59. Both the Terps and Wildcats are part of a huge Big Ten logjam behind Purdue. Entering Tuesday's action, there were four teams tied for second in conference play at 11-7, followed by three at 10-8 and another at 9-8.
“I just think there’s so many good teams and so many great atmospheres," Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. "Everywhere you go, when you play on the road, it’s incredibly difficult to win.”
Maryland still needs to show it can succeed in some of those other atmospheres. The Terps close the regular season at Ohio State and Penn State this week. They've won only one conference road game this season.
“I think a key component to it is focusing on each other,” guard Don Carey said. “I think if we do that, the energy will bring itself and the enthusiasm will bring itself.”
Whatever happens the rest of the way, Willard has already done a lot to rejuvenate the Terrapins. Winning games in Year One — and doing it at home — is a great way to endear yourself to the fans of your new team.
Maryland came into the season without many expectations under a new coach, and that lack of pressure might help explain the team's performance. The Terps, especially at home, have looked loose and happy on the court. That reflects well on Willard.
“Every year you kind of learn a little bit more about how my attitude affects their attitude — my stress puts on them,” Willard said. “I love coaching basketball, I love doing what I do, and I just want to make sure that my kids have the same attitude and the same feeling I do. It's college basketball. When you get to play in front of 17,000 people, it should be fun."
Follow Noah Trister at https://twitter.com/noahtrister
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