Julian Reese of Maryland has moved into the NCAA tournament stage


BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — Around this time a year ago, Julian Reese was watching the NCAA tournament from College Park, and his focus was already on his second season. His Maryland team had pushed through its schedule with an interim coach, knowing early on that its postseason hopes had already faded. Reese said he understood the Terrapins’ predicament and that they didn’t “have the right tools to be there.”

So, while waiting in limbo for his new trainer to arrive, Reese trained ready for a future would includes his participation in the main event of his sport. When Kevin Willard took the top job in Maryland, he met with the players, and Reese recalls speaking intensely, setting the tone and earning the team’s respect. Willard stated that he would not accept laziness. Reese believed in the vision.

The Baltimore native stayed true to Maryland, and in return he’s thrived after earning a full-time starting role for the Terps.

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Reese gets into nasty trouble at times, and a shoulder injury limited him early this season. But lately his scoring performances have stabilized. He recently had four straight double-doubles, and since the beginning of February, Reese has averaged 13.2 points. Since then he has only finished with less than 10 points once. Now here at the tournament, Reese had one of his best outings — 17 points and nine rebounds — to propel the eighth-place Terps past West Virginia into Saturday’s second round.

Willard has been adamant this season, especially lately, that Reese is one of the best big men in the Big Ten. And Willard said after Reese’s first-round performance that “anyone who’s surprised by what they did today wasn’t watching us.”

Next up for Maryland is top seed Alabama, and the Crimson Tide list is packed with depth and length. Reese plays a matchup against 7-foot center Charles Bediako, a formidable rim guard, and the Crimson Tide will test Reese’s ability to avoid fouling. (He’s committed at least four fouls in about half his games this season.)

In Reese’s NCAA tournament debut, assistant coach Grant Billmeier noted “a bit of stage fright” in the second player, who had two turnovers and no shot attempts in the first six minutes. Reese said he had to adjust to West Virginia’s physicality. Willard briefly replaced Reese from the game, but when he returned, Billmeier saw a powerful change.

“Once he starts to get into his groove and get confident and talk and play with emotions,” said Billmeier, “then I know he’s got the nerves of his system.”

That confidence became perhaps one of Reese’s best performances in a Maryland jersey. Without him, the terps would likely have been eliminated.

With less than four minutes to go and the tie, two West Virginia defensemen pinned Maryland point guard Jahmir Young near the touchline. The ball was thrown into the air and tipped multiple times by Mountaineers trying to secure the giveaway, but then Reese reached out, jumped, and grabbed the ball. He immediately spotted teammate Hakim Hart openly under the basket and threw one Pass in his direction. Hart ended with an easy layup, and the terps never fell behind again.

With West Virginia’s starting center in dire straits, Reese wanted to capitalize by playing on aggression. After the halftime break, Reese made 5 of 7 field goal attempts and connected the most second-half baskets he’s made this season. With 2:45 left, Reese dipped to give Maryland a five-point lead, the team’s most comfortable lead since the start of the second half and eventually a reason for the fan base to breathe a sigh of relief.

The Terps needed Reese in large part because Young struggled through the postseason. Young, Maryland’s top scorer that season, had just 10 points, seven of which came from the free-throw line, and had six turnovers against West Virginia. When Young conceded his fourth foul against West Virginia and Maryland with 13:20 left, backup point guard Jahari Long had to run the offense. Reese scored the team’s next seven points. The way the West Virginia defenders pressured the ball on the perimeter, Billmeier said, gave Reese plenty of room to play in the paint.

That track “was important to us,” Reese said. “Pick up the pieces that fell apart. Standing up for the boys who are in deep trouble like they sometimes do for me.

Reese’s strong post presence was what the Terps had been lacking in recent seasons. The departures of Bruno Fernando (2017-19) and Jalen Smith (2018-20) left a huge void. Maryland spent the next two seasons without a resounding response.

Alabama transfer Galin Smith made 17 starts for the Terps in 2020-21 but didn’t offer much production in the Big Ten. Chol Marial, a 7-foot-2 wildcard center, had persistent injuries and accumulated just 39 points in two seasons before making the switch. Ultimately, Maryland turned to 6-foot-8 Donta Scott, who played out-of-position center court at times during the 2020-21 season. The next season, the Terps added another transfer, Qudus Wahab from Georgetown, and he started in all but one of his games while battling the conference’s best centers. Reese, then a freshman, had to wait.

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“It was pretty difficult being patient, waiting my turn and knowing next year I was going to get a new coach,” Reese said of his turbulent first-time experience.

But now he is the answer. Willard made a commitment to the returnees – Scott, Hart and Reese – that he would not recruit transfers to play in front of them. With that opportunity, Reese has nearly doubled his production since his freshman year and simply shone in the biggest moment of his season.

“He puts his big boy pants on and he knows a lot of guys are older than him, a lot of guys are more mature than him,” Scott said. “But he goes out there and takes on that challenge.”

https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2023/03/17/julian-reese-maryland-ncaa-tournament/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=wp_homepage Julian Reese of Maryland has moved into the NCAA tournament stage

Ian Walker

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