Kevin Willard brings marquee nonconference games to Maryland


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Three years ago, well into December, the Maryland men’s basketball team struggled through a poor offensive performance against Seton Hall. The Terrapins, who went into this season with high expectations and went on to win a chunk of the Big Ten regular-season title, emerged from the somber game in search of confidence that had faded just before the holidays. Kevin Willard’s understaffed roster had overwhelmed the Terps with his physicality, forcing Maryland into their lowest-scoring game in nearly seven years.

The previous season, again after a long hiatus in late December, Willard’s team traveled to College Park for the first game of the home-and-home series. In that game, the Terps started slow, missing too many free throws while Seton Hall’s outstanding guards shone.

Those two non-conference losses created excitement in the early months of the season in Maryland, and this spring they bolstered the coaching resume that restored optimism in the fan base.

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Willard, who coached at Seton Hall for 12 years before taking over the Terps program, often led the Pirates into non-conference marquee games and notched up victories. When Maryland hired Willard, the school touted all of his victories against Big Ten programs — 11, including five on the road, since 2014-15 — and listed notable wins against rank enemies. The December 2019 win over then-No. 7 Maryland made the cut.

In Willard’s debut season with the Terps, his team has two difficult matchups outside of conference this month — on Sunday against No. 7 Tennessee at the Barclays Center in New York and on Wednesday at home against No. 19 UCLA. Victories against either opponent would spark a surge of enthusiasm around the program, which has already begun to exceed moderate expectations this season. The No. 13 Terps started 8-0 before suffering their first loss Tuesday in Wisconsin, but these games give them a chance to bounce back vigorously.

In 12 seasons at Seton Hall, Willard’s teams played 26 non-conference games against teams that finished in the top 50 in Ken Pomeroy’s analysis-based ratings. The Pirates won 11 of those matchups, including victories over Kentucky (December 2018), Texas Tech (November 2017), Texas (December 2021), and Michigan (November 2021).

The Terps also played 26 non-conference opponents of this caliber during the same period, including Gary Williams’ final season and Mark Turgeon’s next 11. Maryland won 10 times, a similar mark to Willard at Seton Hall. However, these games had become rarer in recent years.

Since the 2017-18 season, the Terps have won two out of seven games against non-conference opponents who finish in the top 50. Four were scheduled as part of the now-defunct ACC Big Ten Challenge (Syracuse, Virginia, Clemson and Virginia Tech). , and another matchup against Butler was part of the Gavitt Games, which brings together the Big Ten and Big East teams.

Willard’s schedule against difficult opponents increased as he built Seton Hall’s program. In the five seasons before he became Maryland coach, he won 8-7 against eventual top-50 teams. Willard also got to know the Big Ten. During his time at Seton Hall, he played against 10 of the 14 teams in the conference, including an annual (except 2020–21) rivalry game with Rutgers, and he posted an 11–6 record against the league.

If Tennessee, UCLA and Miami remain in Pomeroy’s top 50, this season’s list will include the most non-conference opponents of that caliber for Maryland since 2014-15. (Saint Louis, currently at No. 54, could also slip to this notch.)

Willard doesn’t haphazardly seek out top-flight opponents. He looks at his conference: How good are the top teams? And how bad are the lower teams? He thinks about how many league games his team could win. From there, he’ll scout around the country for non-conference games that improve his team’s schedule but also appear winnable.

“I’m very strategic with my planning,” Willard said in the spring. “Every year it’s not as hard as everyone thinks.”

Looking ahead to next season, “we probably won’t plan quite as hard,” Willard said earlier in the fall because he will have a younger, less experienced team. But on Friday he hinted at another game on neutral ground in New York. The Terps “have a chance” to play at Madison Square Garden, Willard said, “which I think we probably do, against a very good team.” Willard, a former New York Knicks ballboy, said, “There’s nothing that touches the Manhattan venue,” and he will miss playing in the Big East tournaments there.

Maryland is in the middle of an early season gantlet. Those non-conference matchups against Tennessee and UCLA come after a trip to Louisville for the ACC Big Ten Challenge and the two Big Ten games against then-No. 16 Illinois and Wisconsin.

Before Willard arrived, the Terps had agreed to be part of the Basketball Hall of Fame Invitational, the event where they will play Tennessee at Barclays Center. Willard, a friend of Bruins coach Mick Cronin, then added a home-and-home series with UCLA. After Maryland plays the Bruins, the team finally gets a break.

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The conference games in early December were “a big change for me,” Willard said. “I would never have this game [against Tennessee] after the stretch we just went through. … You put so much effort and energy into league games. Honestly, I’d like to have the eight-day break now and start then. This is how we will probably start next year.”

The future of planning outside of conferences could be different. With the Big Ten adding UCLA and Southern California ahead of the 2024-25 season, the schools could end up playing more than the 20 league games currently on the schedule. The conference hasn’t announced final plans, but Willard said, “I think we’re going to do whatever TV wants to do,” which he says will mean more conference matchups. That leaves less room for games like the one Maryland is playing next week.

Last month in the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip Off Classic, the Terps defeated Miami, who advanced to the Elite Eight in the 2022 NCAA tournament, and Saint Louis, who could be a tournament team. Now they have an opportunity to earn more CV-boosting achievements.

When a non-conference roster features mostly low-tier opponents, “guys can train their minds differently,” said assistant coach Grant Billmeier, who worked with Willard at Seton Hall and followed him to College Park. A tough schedule, on the other hand, “really sets them up for what’s going to be going into the Big Ten and all the tough league games that we’re going to have.”