Center Julian Reese has earned the praise. And his big-man head coach made sure to recognize his efforts.
Following a gritty paint battle in Champaign, interim head coach Danny Manning acknowledged the poised outing of his freshman big. Reese had fouled out and totaled just four points and six boards off the bench, but he held his own against college basketball heavyweight, Kofi Cockburn.
“It reminded me of my freshman year. My first game I played against Lenny Bias,” Manning said. “And I walked away from that game, impressed by Lenny Bias, but also walked away saying: ‘you know what, if I can keep up with him, if I can compete with him, I’m gonna have a chance to do something special.’ I think that … Julian [Reese] will walk away with that type of mentality. Of being able to battle somebody that big and that strong and, for stretches, be able to hold your own.”
Against nonconference opponents, Reese has been flashing his potential on both ends of the floor. But his services and gradual improvement will be crucial in the months to come to keep Maryland afloat in the Big Ten.
His value was evident even in Maryland’s loss to Illinois. When Wahab wasn’t on the floor, Reese played admirably in his role. The Terps were convincingly out-rebounded, but Reese was only second to Donta Scott in boards. He also led both teams in steals with three and added to his team-leading season block total (17) with a rejection.
“I thought he did some good things,” Manning said, “getting some deflections, a blocked shot, making him fight, making him work.”
What really stood out was his ability to keep Cockburn reasonably in check — denying paint touches, staying vertical in the defensive post. Before the Illinois center exploded for a masterful second half and even during his domination, Reese was markedly confident and leveled in Cockburn’s presence — a promising flash of maturity as the Terps’ Big Ten schedule continues. He typified his performance with a thunderous poster over his seven-foot assignment.
Reese has been one of few bright spots on the bench, offensively and defensively, as Maryland piles up single-digit, uninspired production with its bench play. And playing the frontcourt talents of the Big Ten has the potential to make Reese better, too.
But even as Reese grows more confident and more skilled, there are immediate matters that Maryland needs to figure out as a team.
Chief among them is the crippling slow starts. In each of Maryland’s Big Ten losses a late start is to blame. Most recently, a sputtering open by the Terps allowed Iowa’s Keegan Murray to comfortably ease himself toward a remarkable 35-point finish.
A slow start in the following contest meant that, despite facing an Illini team without their best player for the majority of the first half due to foul trouble, the Terps spent the half closing a double-digit gap rather than building a lead.
No. 23 Wisconsin, the home of the third best scorer in the nation in Johnny Davis, who averages 22 points per contest, will likely be just as disciplined and unrelenting as the Terps’ previous two opponents.
“If you want to win, you play it possession by possession.” Manning said. “And that’s the mindset. So we’ve got to get off to better starts and win more possessions early on in the ballgame. And throughout the course of the ballgame. The team that wins the most possession wins the game — so it’s just one step at a time.”
Back at the Xfinity Center, the Terps know they have a dependable role player they can lean on, but his efforts could easily be overlooked if Maryland continues to fail to manufacture a true 40 minute team performance and struggles to claim its first Big Ten win.