Maryland men’s basketball faces crucial early-season test at No. 21 Villanova

Photo courtesy of Riley Rumbley/Maryland Athletics

In the inaugural game at the Finneran Pavilion on Feb. 1, 1986, Maryland’s Len Bias led all scorers with 25 points in a two-point loss to Villanova.

Maryland men’s basketball will return to the same building — for the first time in nearly four decades — looking to right the ship after a pair of one-possession losses in the Asheville Championship Tournament. To do so, it will have to go through an old friend.

Hakim Hart started 85 games in four seasons at Maryland, posting career highs across the board last year before returning to his hometown of Philadelphia to play his final collegiate season at Villanova.

“I wish I still had Hakim,” coach Kevin Willard said. “Hakim’s a very good player, so I’m not looking forward to playing against him.”

Regardless of how excited Willard is to be on the opposite sideline of his former player, he’ll have no choice when the Terps visit No. 21 Villanova on Friday as part of the Gavitt Games tipoff.

After a weekend that saw Maryland lose to two non-power conference opponents, Davidson and UAB, they’ll face a Wildcats squad that is just as badly in need of a win. They were upset by Penn on Monday. Hart, who has not started a game this year, saw just nine minutes of game action and did not attempt a shot.

Villanova has been one of the most successful men’s basketball programs in the country in the 21st century, with national titles in 2016 and 2018. But it missed the NCAA Tournament last season for the first time since 2012 in the first year of the post-Jay Wright era. 

Despite their shortcomings a season ago, Willard doesn’t believe this iteration of the Wildcats looks much different from their powerhouses of the past.

“They’re still jump-stopping, pivoting … still running the same offense, defensively they do the same thing,” Willard said. “[Coach Kyle Neptune] has a senior-laden team that knows what they’re doing.”

One of those seniors is leading scorer Justin Moore, a former teammate of Jahmir Young at DeMatha Catholic High School, who returned to Villanova for a fifth year after recovery from a torn achilles that limited him to just 13 games last season.

The Wildcats also return last season’s leading scorer, forward Eric Dixon, and added key rotation pieces from the transfer portal in Hart, TJ Bamba (Washington State), and Tyler Burton (Richmond). 

For Maryland to avoid a third consecutive loss, it will need to shoot and protect the ball better than it has thus far. The Terps shot just 22.6 percent from three-point range and averaged 14 turnovers per game in their first three games.

“I don’t think we are a terrific shooting team, but I don’t think we’re as bad as we have shown,” Willard said.

As much as Maryland has struggled with taking care of the ball, it has had success taking it away, causing 13.7 turnovers per game. Forcing a veteran team into a bunch of mistakes is no easy task, however, and despite their loss on Monday, the Wildcats only turned it over six times.

The Terps will have to find answers in the halfcourt. Julian Reese is drawing a ton of attention inside, but Maryland isn’t knocking down open shots when he kicks out. Life is a lot easier for opposing defenses when they can send help to the paint and not worry about getting burned on the perimeter.

Maryland is 3-0 all-time in the Gavitt Games, but it has not participated since 2017. Villanova leads the all-time series between the two programs, 4-1. 

Tipoff is set for 8:30 p.m. on Friday.

Posted by Hayden Sweeney