Maryland men’s basketball coach Kevin Willard is busy, and that’s understandable.
Since being named Mark Turgeon’s successor last month, Willard has been recruiting, accumulating for a new program and area, team training, staffing and interview requests.
Although Willard is months away from his first season with Terps, he already has his vision of winning at the highest level, making it even more important how he fills out a list of six open scholarship places.
Since Willard went to seventh grade, he saw himself as a coach. When he was growing up, he wanted to question his father, Ralph, a former college basketball coach, about certain aspects of the game. And for 10 years, he worked under longtime coach Rick Pitino as an assistant to the Boston Celtics and Louisville men’s basketball, and he admired the Hall of Fame’s hard work and passion for the sport.
Willard sat down with The Baltimore Sun to discuss adaptation to a new program, leaving Seton Hall, recruiting, the transfer portal, athletes taking advantage of their name, image and likeness, Pitino’s influence and balancing fans’ expectations.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
They have been amazing. The guys have worked hard. They have had good attitudes and great enthusiasm. We are making some really good progress with things that I would like to see improved on. So it’s been two fun weeks. I think guys have enjoyed coming back to the gym.
I think step one is exactly what we were talking about … getting in the gym with the guys and seeing their work ethic, what needs to be improved [and] what they are good at because it starts to formulate what you need to add to your list to complement the guys who are here.
First and foremost, it’s player development. That’s what we’re focusing on here every day. Academic, social, basketball … trying to develop them at the highest level every day. Make sure we go in every day and they get better.
I’ve said a lot of times where timing and opportunities are alike, I think it goes. And I saw it as a great opportunity to be the head coach at the University of Maryland. The timing was right for my kids [and] it would not be any major inconvenience. And also the opportunity for the right person to take over Seton Hall at the right time. All the things that kind of work. And when those things come into play, it just makes sense.
I think Damon has a great passion for this program. He has a big vision for this program. And again, I knew the tradition and history of the program. But I loved what Damon thought this program could be.
It’s hard to balance fans’ expectations. I think that’s what makes this job one of the better jobs. It has such a large fan base and it has high expectations. I never think you’re trying to change expectations. I think you just have to try to work to live up to those expectations.
It was my year in seventh grade. When I was a ball boy for the New York Knicks, I just fell in love with the game on another level. Being around the high level of play almost every day, skipping school and going to games. I was able to watch the basketball game on such a different level than most kids. Being in the locker room, being on the field, rebounding for Michael Jordan, Mark Jackson and Patrick Ewing, and then watching the fights and being around training. I went to pretty much every home workout.
I think the biggest thing I have taken from my dad is how he ran a program at an extremely high level and at the same time was a father and husband. So I think more than anything else that it has always stuck with me. The amount of time and energy he put into the program, but the amount of time and energy he still put into his family life.
Hard work and passion. He drills it into you as an assistant. You work extremely hard every day. And his passion for the game [and] for player development is contagious. It’s something I carry with me every day.
I think I have grown in all aspects. Understanding the responsibility of running a program, a head coach and player development. I have changed. I’m a total of 180 from where I started, and hopefully, in 10 years more, I’ll be a different 180 than where I am now.
It is different. I look back on some of the things I just was not prepared for then that I am prepared for now. I learned a lot from the early mistakes I made and made sure we did not do this. I think [I’m] more experienced. I mean, you have to learn from what you’ve done every place you are [at]. I’m 13 years older and I’m much smarter than when I was 34.
It’s something I’ve developed over my years at Seton Hall. I tracked who made the NCAA tournament [and] what seeds they got. I see planning as probably the most important factor in winning. Knowing how to plan the right matches correctly at the right time will help your team. I also thought it was important to get outside the Big East [Conference] and make sure we play in other conferences, play good neutral site games and play good tournaments. I thought it was an opportunity for my program to be seen on another level.
Yes, absolutely. Because some of the schedule is already set, I do not have that much control. Like the tournament we play in, I think it’s in the Mohegan Sun. Some games are already locked. So I have to spend a few years getting out of the cycle we’re in.
We will still plan a good schedule for our fans and play competitive matches. But it is an ongoing work. Unfortunately, every time you take over a job, you’re stuck in a lot of things that you have no control over.
There is always a balance. You do not get all the children from DMV to stay at home. I think it’s when your fanbase says, ‘Oh, I can not believe this boy went, or this boy went.’ I think you just have to look at the kids that you want to fit into your program, want to play for you and be at the University of Maryland, and you focus on those kids. There will be many children who will go away and there will be many children who will stay.
I think everyone forgets that kids moved all the time before. I think the only difference is that you brought in three transfers, knowing they had to replace three seniors. Now you bring in kids who can play right away for the kids you just lost. So it’s a little more immediate. But transfers always have [had] great influence on college basketball.
I look at it differently. I think you should look at your current list. And then you have to sit there and say, ‘OK, how do I build the current list? How do I not duplicate what I have on the current list? You have a child who played for you for three years, how can I not come in and take what he has earned? ‘ At the same time, you make sure that you bring in beginners who can get better, and get these transfers and upper classes to develop the graduates.
I think the good thing is that we have been very aggressive in our NIL. And to grow what we have in our NIL, not only for our current list, but for a future roster. So the University of Maryland is a very strong place with NIL.
I think you need to balance the fact that you want to make sure you have kids who want to come to the University of Maryland to get a great education, have a great experience and play in a great area. But at the same time being able to ensure that you are competitive with everyone else in the landscape of college basketball.
I think if kids made money on their name, image and likeness, it’s a great thing. Unfortunately, that is not happening now.
Nix. It’s a whole other story.
I can not answer that. I mean, we have so many gaps to fill. What we are trying to do is make sure we complement everyone on the list right now. I feel like we’ve got a great group of guys back, but we make sure we fill the parts around them and are as good as we can be.
I think Julian is having a monster year. I have been so impressed with his work ethic [and] his leadership. I think he’s starting to fill his body. We’re going to put a lot of work into his game this summer.
I have the same expectation every year to win at the highest level. It does not change at any time of the year. From day one to day 365, my expectation is to win at the highest level.
I think that’s the way we’re going to play, especially early on. I think it gets a lot of local kids having it squabbling. From the equipment we wear, to how we wear it, to whom we play. It’s not going to happen overnight, but it’s something we’re going to work hard to develop.
I mean, recruitment [and] fills up the Xfinity Center, making this the best home court advantage in college basketball. Again, I think it’s going to take a lot of hard work and passion. But I think we have a great staff and I think we have a great university to do that.