On Thursday afternoon, the Maryland men’s basketball team’s March Madness dreams died a quick death. Needing a Big Ten Conference tournament championship to secure a berth in the NCAA tournament, the 12th-seeded Terps suffered their worst defeat of an already dispiriting season, an 87-56 loss to fifth-seeded Wisconsin.

The Terps’ short stay in Minneapolis was not a memorable one, but it was at least guaranteed. With Oregon, UCLA, USC and Washington joining the Big Ten in August, that courtesy will no longer be afforded to all league members. Starting next year, only the top 15 of the Big Ten’s 18 teams will qualify for its conference tournament.

There is perhaps no grimmer indictment of Maryland’s outlook for next season that not even a spot in the Big Ten tournament seems certain now. Coach Kevin Willard will lose two of his most valuable players (and perhaps the top three overall) from one of the program’s worst teams this century. His core of underclassmen is underwhelming. His prized recruit is far from a savior. And his history of roster construction suggests that, even in an era when transfer portal overhauls can transform a team’s fortunes in one offseason, an immediate offensive turnaround is unlikely.

Willard’s mistakes last offseason quashed the momentum of his debut season in College Park, when he guided the Terps to an NCAA tournament appearance and signed a well-regarded recruiting class. Another errant offseason could prompt a reckoning for athletic director Damon Evans. Maryland’s losing record this season (15-16) would be the program’s first by a full-time head coach since 1992-93, Gary Williams’ first season after toiling through a two-year postseason ban.

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Would another season under .500, another winter with dwindling crowds at Xfinity Center, mark the beginning of the end for Willard?

“We’ll retool the roster,” he told reporters Thursday in Minneapolis, “and we’ll be back next year.”

Guard Jahmir Young won’t be. The first-team All-Big Ten selection, a graduate student, has been by far the best piece of a Terps offense that ranks 160th among 362 teams nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to statistician Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. (In the Big Ten, only Rutgers, ranked No. 298, has fared worse.)

Young, who averages a team-high 20.5 points and 4.3 assists per game on 40% shooting (32.1% from deep), has been Willard’s only high-volume, high-efficiency scorer. His value against Maryland’s toughest opponents has been especially clear.

In Quad 1 and Quad 2 games (excluding Thursday’s loss), Young is averaging 22.6 points on a 56.0% true-shooting rate, according to CBB Analytics, which accounts for accuracy from the field and free throw line. Nationally, those marks rank in the 100th and 74th percentiles, respectively.

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Time and again, the Terps have shown they cannot survive cold shooting nights from their star. Forward Donta Scott, another departing fifth-year senior, averages 11.2 points per game on 52.1% true shooting (30th percentile) in those top-tier matchups. Junior forward Julian Reese averages 12.4 points per game on 53.5% true shooting (36th percentile).

From there, the drop-off has been even steeper. The only other Maryland player who ranks above the 13th percentile in true-shooting percentage against Quad 1 and Quad 2 opponents is guard Jahari Long, who averages 3.6 points per game in them.

Maryland has not often played with both Young (35.5 minutes per game) and Scott (30.3) sidelined. But, when the Terps have had to go without their two most reliable outside shooters, they’ve seemed incapable of spacing the floor or scoring consistently. With Young and Smith playing together during the season, Maryland’s offensive rating is in the 59th percentile, according to CBB Analytics, which would rank 11th in the 14-team Big Ten. With both missing: the second percentile, below last-place Rutgers.

Willard’s saving grace this season has been his defense, which is 13th nationally in Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency rankings and led the Big Ten in points allowed (65.2 per game). Even that proficiency seems precarious, though.

Much of Maryland’s success this season has seemed to rest on Reese’s presence as a defender (1.9 blocks per game) and rebounder (9.6 per game). With the Baltimore native on the floor, the Terps are in the 97th percentile in defensive rating, according to CBB Analytics, which would rank second in the Big Ten. Without Reese, they fall to the 28th percentile. That would rank second worst in the league.

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Reese has stayed with the program through two coaching changes, earning honorable-mention all-conference honors the past two years with his development under Willard. But the promising shooting touch Reese showed as a freshman — his best hope to one day earn a spot on an NBA roster — has devolved over the past two seasons. Reese could enter the transfer portal this offseason in the hopes of rediscovering it with another coach. He would be among the country’s more coveted big men, almost certain to command significant offers from schools’ name, image and likeness collectives.

Even if Reese returns, it’s unclear how he would fit next to ballyhooed center recruit Derik Queen, a Baltimore native and McDonald’s All-American. Queen is a gifted passer and rebounder, but his scoring range, like Reese’s, is limited mostly to the paint. Playing both together could clog driving lanes for teammates, a perpetual problem with Maryland’s limited outside shooting this season.

And, if Reese leaves, Queen would be saddled with unreasonable expectations to make up for his production as a freshman. The learning curve for big men is often steep. Of the six centers ranked among the top 40 recruits in 247Sports’ composite rankings for the class of 2023, only one (Baylor’s Yves Missi) is averaging more than 10 points per game this season. Only two (Missi and Oklahoma State’s Brandon Garrison) are averaging more than five rebounds per game.

Altogether, Young, Scott and Reese have accounted for nearly two-thirds of Maryland’s scoring this season (65.9%), while Young and Reese have been two of the team’s most valuable defenders. In their absence, Willard should have significant playing time to offer prospective transfers, with at least two spots open in the Terps’ starting five.

He will have to fill them better than he did last year. Starting guards Don Carey (7.4 points per game), whose eligibility expired, and Hakim Hart (11.4), who transferred to Villanova for his final season of eligibility, were never effectively replaced. Together, they’d combined to hit 98 3-pointers at a solid, if unremarkable, 33.9% clip in 2022-23.

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Stepping in for them this season were freshman guards DeShawn Harris-Smith (7.0 points per game), Jamie Kaiser (4.4) and Baltimore’s Jahnathan Lamothe (0.8), along with increased roles for Long (4.7) and sophomore guard Noah Batchelor (1.7). Together, they made a combined 102 3-pointers on mediocre 26.3% shooting. (Transfer Chance Stephens, who shot 37.4% from deep in limited action as a freshman guard for Loyola Marymount, suffered a season-ending knee injury last summer.)

Maryland might’ve had enough offensive firepower for a second straight NCAA tournament appearance had it kept guard Ian Martinez, a key reserve on last season’s team. But he entered the portal in May, long after the initial waves of transfers, and landed at Utah State, where he’s averaging 13.3 points per game on 49.2% shooting for a top-40 Aggies offense that’s headed to the NCAA tournament.

Even after Thursday’s loss, though, the fifth time in a six-game span that the Terps have been held under 70 points, Willard was unapologetic about his roster construction.

“The way we built the roster, I thought, was good,” said Willard, who has overseen just two offenses ranked among the top 30 in efficiency over his 14 years at Seton Hall and Maryland. “As the year went on, I was just really shocked at how much we struggled to shoot the basketball. I just think our inability to make shots just led to nine three-points-or-less losses, and that adds up. It just wears you down a little bit. It wears you down as a player, it wears you down as a coach, and I know it wore the fan base down.”

That has been clear from the patches of empty seats at home games and the comments on fan forums and the agita on social media. Evans, who signed Willard to a seven-year, $29.4 million contract in 2022, acknowledged last week in his weekly appearance on 105.7 The Fan’s “The Vinnie & Haynie Show” that it had been “a tough season.”

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“I’m not gonna sit here and mince any words,” he said. “It’s been difficult. It’s not the season that we expected here at the University of Maryland. I know that our fans expect a lot more out of us, and we just got to continue to work hard and try to finish strong.”

Maryland, picked to finish third in the Big Ten this season, had hoped for a better year. Now it must brace for the possibility that its next year will be even worse.

Jonas Shaffer is a Ravens beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Ravens for The Baltimore Sun. Shaffer graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Silver Spring.

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