Maryland basketball continues to elevate as team enters pivotal stretch

Photo Courtesy of Maryland Athletics

Maryland’s 19-point hammering of Nebraska on Saturday, coming on the heels of an 18-point victory over Wisconsin three days earlier, revealed a team that’s prepared to play consistent winning basketball in the Big Ten. 

The Terps have shown top-notch poise in their recent contests. They’ve won four of their last six, improving to 14-7 over the season and 5-5 in conference play. Maryland is also 11-1 at home. 

Jahmir Young has remained reliable on the scoring end, dropping 22 and 18 points in the Terps’ last two games, respectively. He contributed eight rebounds and five assists in the 73-55 trouncing of the Badgers, then dished seven more assists along with six steals in the 82-63 rout of Cornhuskers. Young raised his scoring average to 16 points per game after a relatively slow start to the season. 

Maryland coach Kevin Willard believes Young still has a higher ceiling to reach on the defensive end. “I don’t think he realizes how good of a defender he can be,” he said. “But at his size, his quickness, he does a great job of reading… I think he’s a heck of a defender.” 

Julian Reese, on the other hand, has found himself unable to shake his foul-drawing funk. In his past nine games he’s averaged 3.77 per contest, and has stacked up four in each of his last three games. He performed admirably against Wisconsin with 14 points, but was limited to only 13 minutes  against Nebraska due to foul trouble. Even then, he did manage to snag five rebounds, including three on the offensive glass.

Patrick Emilien stepped up big on Saturday in his most impactful game in over a month. On and off the court since mid-December with lingering ankle injuries, he saw major minutes against Wisconsin. Emilien tied his season high of 10 points, matching his total against St. Peter’s on Dec. 12. The senior forward seized seven boards, the team high, and snagged three offensive rebounds to match Reese.

Emilien, who Willard often calls one of his most valuable players, has been sorely missed in the regular rotation. He doesn’t take many shots, but often rolls and creates space down low for another player slicing through the defense.

On the defensive end, Emilien is a more than serviceable replacement for Reese and occasionally Scott. “He just gives us a different dynamic,” Willard said. “The fact that he can switch pick and rolls, slide over to power forward and slide over to center … he was a big key why we got off to such a good start.” 

The addition of the veteran small-ball big hasn’t been the only recent change in Maryland’s scheme; another potential secondary playmaker has emerged around Young. 

Hakim Hart surprised all who witnessed Wednesday’s game against the Badgers when he dished out eight assists. In the very next outing, the senior guard/forward distributed five more. Prior to this week, the most assists he’d ever given out in one contest was four.

Hart leads the Terps with win shares (3.1), an estimation of the number of wins a player contributes on offense and defense. He holds the second-highest steal percentage among Maryland players and the second-highest true shooting efficiency combining two-pointers, three-pointers and free throws, as well as standard field goal percentage.

Young has a usage rate of 33.7% in conference play, which measures how much the ball is in a player’s hands while he’s on the floor. This is considerably higher than that of the next-highest rotational player, Donta Scott, with 21.7%, and Hart’s rate of 18% could soon rise if he proves himself a reliable distributor.

Though injury-plagued Nebraska wasn’t the toughest opponent, Maryland has played highly capable basketball in recent weeks.  Two more comfortable victories at home following a one-possession loss on the road at Purdue are a good indication that the Terps are finally figuring it out again.