What does the Final Four in this year’s NCAA Tournament teach us about Maryland basketball? Nothing directly, but from a broader view, it’s a reminder that college basketball is largely an East Coast sport.
With the exception of Kansas, a virtual standalone Midwestern powerhouse, the Final Four is comprised of East Coast powers: North Carolina, Duke and Villanova. And that should come as no surprise; before Baylor’s breakout win last year, 16 of the previous 19 national champions were schools located on the East Coast — mostly Duke, North Carolina and UConn. And, of course, Maryland in 2002.
We scoffed at the ACC all season, but the reality is most high school coaches and players still view it with reverence as tea basketball conference, and that shows in the level of talent on its teams. Look at Miami, which finished fourth in the conference but reached the Elite Eight, going farther than any of the Big Ten’s teams. For all of its perennial hype, the Big Ten underperformed again, failing to land any teams in the Final Four for the fourth time in the past six years. The conference’s national drought championship is now at 22 years.
That’s a long drought for a conference with the funding, prestige and pride of the Big Ten. It’s a top-five basketball conference, but it’s in a lower class than the ACC. And the SEC is rapidly improving its coach and its talent.
It’s painfully apparent that the Big Ten has an athleticism problem. Most of its teams are built in football country, where the football mindset carries over to hoops and centers on rugged big men and physical play. Every year, we convince ourselves that the conference’s best teams will impose their will in the NCAA Tournament. Spoiler: they rarely do. There’s often a noticeable difference in the length, athleticism and quickness of teams from the Big Ten compared to others from ACC and the SEC. Basketball is increasingly a game won by quickness and athleticism. But that also represents a chance for Maryland to stack accomplishments against football school during the regular season. Look at what Kansas has done in the Big 12.
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This Big Ten talk is not a complaint about Maryland leaving the ACC for the Big Ten. That’s spilled milk. It’s time to let that go. The school needed the money, largely because former AD put its athletic department in a desperate situation. There was no choice. It was take the money or fail to survive. But it does put the program at a disadvantage based on perception. Most of the blue-chip local players end up in the ACC, often at Duke or UNC. And too many times in recent years, Maryland turned its nose up at gritty but underrated locals like Saddiq Bey and Naji Marshall.
That’s not to say Maryland’s struggles are all because of conference affiliation or Mark Turgeon’s deficiencies, which have been discussed ad nauseam. Its Under Armor affiliation can also be an obstacle, not necessarily because they are affiliated with Under Armour, but because they aren’t affiliated with Nike. Most of the area’s top high school programs are affiliated with Nike or a Nike-sponsored AAU program, or both. For all of the talent that has come through Paul VI (Va.) and DeMatha (Md.) — including Duke’s Trevor Keels and jeremy roach and Villanova’s Justin Moore in this year’s Final Four — Maryland hasn’t gotten a single player from DeMatha since Travis Garrison in 2002. It’s never gotten a Paul VI player.
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“After a while, I think [Turgeon] said, ‘To hell with the WCAC, I got no shot.’ I think what he was talking about was the Nike connection,” one longtime WCAC insider said.
But that can’t be an excuse forever. Maryland can also use its location to its advantage. While the other top basketball programs in the Big Ten are largely located in football country, Maryland is in a basketball hotbed. It can brand itself as the cool, East Coast-style basketball team standing out among a bunch of football schools. But it can’t be bland and unassuming and happy just to get to the Big Dance as it has been for a while.
If you look at those East Coast teams in the Final Four, one commonality is they all expect excellence. Every year. When Villanova won the national title on a buzzer-beater, Jay Wright barely reacted. North Carolina fans were ready to run off Hubert Davis, a beloved alum, halfway into his first season. And Duke is Duke.
Maryland certainly has more access to talent than anyone in the Big Ten. By now, you’ve heard a million times that the DMV is arguably the best high school basketball area in the country. Especially when you add in Baltimore, which has several five-star recruits in the pipeline. At some point, the program is due to start getting its share of them, and Kevin Willard has a far better chance to do so than Turgeon. He’s an East Coast guy with a Long Island accent, who likes beer and busting balls. Aside from getting its share of local players ranked as top-50 national prospects, a list that has included only Melo Trimble and Jalen Smith in the past 10 years, Maryland should be able to get top-50 national players on a regular basis.
“I remember watching Maryland basketball and I remember thinking to myself, I want to play for that man [Williams]I want to play for that school because they had such swagger, they had such confidence … His teams had a swagger, his players had a swagger, the University of Maryland had a swagger,” Willard said in his introductory press conference.
“We’re going to bring that swagger that coach Williams had. That Joe Smith, Stevie Francis, Steve Blake … Juan Dixon,” he said. We are gonna bring back that passion, that energy that coach Williams coached with, that his players played with. HI didn’t shy away from big expectations.”
And Maryland shouldn’t shy away from expectations. With its resources, fans, history and arena, there are few excuses for being mired in an extended blah stretch like this, with two Sweet 16s in the 20 years since its national championship. One of them came the year after the championship, with several of the key players from that team. The other came in 2016 and ended in a one-sided loss to Kansas. So essentially, Maryland fans haven’t experienced the excitement of big March Madness hopes in 20 years. That’s an eternity for a basketball-crazed group.
Willard’s hire represents hope of returning to the big stage that the Tar Heels, Wildcats and Blue Devils are on. His NCAA Tournament results are lacking and he’ll have to prove they weren’t indicative of future performance, but they also came at a much smaller school with far fewer resources than Maryland’s. Maybe sitting at home and watching those East Coast schools with their DMV recruits will add a bit of extra motivation to everyone at Maryland to get back to playing on the big stage as the weather warms. After almost a decade of pondering its new identity in a football conference, Maryland is long overdue to be a relevant East Coast basketball school again.