Is Kevin Willard surprised by Maryland basketball’s dominant start?

Everyone’s been surprised by Maryland basketball’s torrid start. The Terps, who few viewed as an NCAA Tournament team Entering the season, are 5-0 and have beaten all five opponents by at least 18 points, including back-to-back blowouts of projected tourney teams Saint Louis and Miami to win he Hall of Fame Tipoff CClassic.

Everyone, that is, except Terps Coach Kevin Willard.

“I don’t think so. I mean, I think we’re ahead [of expectations] defensively, but I think as I’ve been getting to know these guys and getting to know their personality, they’re smart basketball players. So that has really helped with what we’re trying to do on the defensive end. And I think offensively as they start to realize that the more the ball gets side to side, the more we get the second options, we’re becoming a very good Offensive team,” Willard said after his team’s 88-70 win over Miami on Sunday.

“So we’re a little bit of ahead, but again, I’m excited about the fact that I see so many things that we can get better at.”

They also used a size and toughness advantage to crush the Canes on the glass, 39-20. Six different players averaged at least four rebounds in the two-game event.

“We were much bigger than them. I was kind of surprised by that. I didn’t watch them in person yesterday. I watched them on on film. But I like the fact again, I think Julian and Donta and Pat [Emilien] are all playing really physical inside and I think our guards are doing a great job. We showed a clip at Halftime of Don hitting on a weak side box-out. My point guard had five defensive rebounds, so it’s not just our big guys doing,” Willard said. “I think Jahmir with five rebounds has rebounded at an extremely high level. So it’s a well-balanced team and I think rebounding is, we’ve talked about all year so far, if we could rebound on a high level we can be pretty good.

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“I think these guys are working hard and understanding what we’re trying to do defensively. You know, it helps that they’re older guys. It hurts sometimes because they’ve played different systems, but I think for the most part, these guys have a great feel. They’re all big-time players and so when you have older guys who are smart ,who are also big-time players, they get things a little bit Quicker than a freshman would. So I think they ‘ve all worked really hard to understand what we’re trying to do defensively and it’s helping us win games.”

Sophomore center Julian Reese played perhaps his best collegiate game, going 7-8 for 17 points and seven rebounds.

“I think Julian’s made some great improvements. It’s been nice having him. I haven’t had a center in about five years that can flash out and catch and play high-post basketball. I think he gives these guys opportunities, it gives them different looks where they don’t have to run a play. They can just flash up get a handoff, get a re-screen, so I think Julian’s getting a lot of confidence … We all have a lot of confidence in what Julian can do with the basketball,” Willard said.

The one blemish: a season-high 18 turnovers. But Willard wasn’t concerned.

“I mean, I think I have the best backcourt in the country right now and I think they’ll agree. It’s the first time they’ve played this level of defense consistently and to do that back-to-back, what I’ m asking them to do, some of those turnovers are just kind of, you know, first time we’ve had to play back-to-back games,” he said. “And so I was I knew going in that, I thought, Juju and we could really hurt them on the Offensive glass. But I thought my guard play was outstanding. I thought these two young men played just off the charts.”

He also wasn’t worried about his team’s shot selection, which has been good for much of the first five games. Maryland’s adjusted efficiency ranked 19th nationally according to KenPom.

“I think I have an easy rule. I’m a pretty easy Coach to play for. If you play really hard, I’ll let you take any shot you want, pretty much. The only thing I ask is that you come out and you play hard, you play together and I’ll let you kind of do what you want to do,” he said.

“So I think these guys understand that I also think it’s their personalities, you know, again we have unbelievably high character kids who want to win and they understand what it takes to win and they’re bringing it every night. And they’re getting rewarded. They’re getting rewarded for their hard work and their effort they’re putting in. And that’s what matters to me.

Willard was asked if he thought Miami was his team’s first signature win.

“Miami’s very good and obviously Coach Larranaga, 700 wins, is a Hall of Fame basketball coach. But yeah I think we’re really not worried about signature wins or where we are. I think we still have a long way to go. I mean, we’re good, we have great players but they’re still trying to learn this system and they’re still trying to get comfortable. We’re having turnovers not because of the players, it’s more or less my fault. I ‘m putting them in situations or calling some plays that we haven’t gone over a thousand times, so I think we’re more just focused on us obviously, yeah, beating a good St Louis team and a good Miami, team, that’s great, but I think we still have a long way to go..

Willard, asked about looking ahead to what’s next on the schedule, said no in an unusual way.

“I’ll be honest, you guys, you’re gonna think I’m nuts. I’m just trying to think how long it’s going to take me to get home and if there’s gonna be traffic on the belt,” he said . “So honestly, what I’m thinking, I’m kind of hungry and I’m hoping I don’t hit traffic on the belt. Which is it, Saturday or Sunday? Probably pretty good chance [of traffic].

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