COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Four years ago, wing Jake Layman entered the University of Maryland as a four-star recruit from Wrentham, Mass., scouts touting his deadeye three-point stroke but noting he needed some all-around development to reach his potential. It took the current senior some time, his initial years filled with fits, starts and occasional flashes, but heading into his final home game March 3, he’s finally put it together.
Granted, Layman has lapsed during his last season in College Park, and he won’t go down as an all-time Terps great, but the 6-foot-9, 220-pounder has had a productive, memorable four years.
“Jake’s had a great career. He won 25 games his freshman year, 28 as a junior, and he’s got 23 already this year. He has a chance to leave here as one of the all-time winningest players,” head coach Mark Turgeon said March 2 ahead of the Terps’ game against Illinois at the Xfinity Center March 3. “He’s kicked it into gear. He’s had fun, enjoyed it, and he loves Maryland. That’s really what’s important. You can tell when a kid’s bought it and respects the process. Jake respected it and continued to work, and therefore he’s gotten better every year.”
As a freshman, Layman saw about 20 minutes a night and could be counted on for maybe one 3 each game. He didn’t offer much on the defensive end, nor did he handle the ball particularly well, pass it well, or have the strength to finish inside. He improved considerably heading into his sophomore season, averaging almost 12 points per game and 36.5 percent shooting from distance, but still had troubles defensively.
But Turgeon said towards the end of 2014 and heading into the 2014-15 campaign, Layman “turned it on.” During his junior campaign, Layman put up career highs with a 12.5 point-per-game average on 47 percent shooting (38 percent 3-point shooting), to go along with 5.8 rebounds per, showing more willingness to hit the glass.
This season, his offensive output hasn’t been quite as proficient (11 points per, 37 percent from range), but his defense is by far the best it’s ever been. Layman’s averaging 5.3 rebounds, a steal and a block per game, the latter two stats serving as career bests.
“He was a specialist when he came here. Now he’s a basketball player. That’s a good feeling for me, but it’s all because of how hard he worked,” Turgeon said. “He had to work on his foot speed, his strength, his handle.
“The thing that’s really amazing about Jake is his feel for the game now. He really struggled with his feel his first, second year. But now offensively and defensively he’s playing with a good pace. That’s really hard to teach. He just studied enough film, the game slowed down for him, and he just has a great feel now. That gives him a chance to be successful after college.”
One of Layman’s fellow seniors, walk-on Varun Ram, has known the Massachusetts native every year he’s been in College Park. More than anyone else on the team besides the coaches, Ram can attest to Layman’s growth.
“Jake’s a totally different player. He came in wide eyed and with long, floppy hair,” Ram said. “He came in as a shooter, but now he’s a complete basketball player and makes the right plays. I think Maryland has made him a man, and it’s good to see.”
Layman, for his part, said it’s been a gradual progression for him. He couldn’t pinpoint an exact moment when the switch flipped, but he acknowledge he steadily improved under Turgeon’s watch.
Fifth-year senior Rasheed Sulaimon hasn’t even known Layman for a full year, but even the Duke transfer can tell his new teammate’s put some extra oomph into his game.
“It’s been amazing, just his work ethic, his approach to the game every day in practice -- you can tell he’s a senior,” Sulaimon said. “He’s still the first one diving for loose balls and taking a charge. Just working with him each day and being around him, I consider him a very close friend and he’s like a brother.”
But while Layman’s accomplished his share on the court, one of his crowning moments was for something totally unrelated to the hardwood.
After Maryland’s tumultuous 2013-14 season, in which Layman’s classmates Seth Allen, Charles Mitchell and Shaq Cleare all transferred out of the program, the Massachusetts product elected to stay.
That loyalty is something Turgeon won’t soon forget, the coach touching on the subject once again March 2.
“Looking back to that situation, I didn’t want to leave,” Layman said. “There was no reason for me to leave. I told Coach Turgeon, ‘I’m staying here, I want to be a Terp.’”
And now, two seasons later, Layman will graduate a Terp. He’s set to earn his diploma in May before, hopefully, embarking on a pro career in the NBA.
But first thing’s first: Senior Night, March 3, against Illinois.
“I’m not the most emotional person. Maybe when I walk out there on senior night it will hit me. Right now my focus is on Illinois,” Layman said. “But I’m finally about to graduate; I’m very happy, my parents are very happy and everyone here at Maryland is happy for me. The students are great to be around, and it’s a great group of kids.”
Of course, Layman won’t be the only Maryland player honored March 3. The aforementioned Ram and Sulaimon will be playing their final home games too, in addition to walk-on Trevor Anzmann.
Sulaimon may have spent his first four years in Durham, N.C., but he said he’s honored to go out a Terp.
“It’s kind of crazy, and kind of a surreal feeling. It seems like just yesterday I was entering college,” Sulaimon said. “It’s crazy it’s here so quickly, but I’m looking forward to it. It should be an emotional night for myself and the three other seniors. My family and friends will be here, but we’re looking to get out on the right foot and come away with a win.”
Ram, recall, was actually honored during last year’s senior night. But the walk-on was granted an extra year of eligibility and is back for his second go-around.
“I had to petition Coach Turgeon for a second senior night,” laughed Ram. “He was like, ‘You know you can’t have two senior nights, right?' And I was like, ‘OK, we’ll see about that. But this time, knowing it’s definitely my last, it will be emotional for me and my family. I always felt like I was an integral part of the team.”
Mainly, for Ram’s practice habits. The gnat-like point guard was tasked with giving starting point guard Melo Trimble hell, forcing the All-American to raise his game as a ball-handler and passer.
Trimble, however, hit a rough patch in February where he looked tentative, frustrated and downright un-Melo-like. But during Maryland’s last game against Purdue, an 83-79 loss, Trimble scored 19 points; went to the line 10 times, dished out five assists; and had only one turnover.
For Maryland to advance in March, that Purdue line has to continue.
“Melo’s been terrific in practice. Usually it starts in practice.,” Turgeon said. “The last three games, he’s shot eight, eight and 10 free-throws. He shot like 17 free throws the first nine games [in the Big Ten]. So some things are happening in the right direction for us. He’s getting good looks, he made a couple shots [against Purdue], and had his most complete game against Purdue he’s had in awhile. He didn’t shoot Melo like – he’ spoiled us – but this week in practice he shot it well. I think this week in practice he’s getting his legs back under him.”
Sulaimon said it’s not just Trimble who has improved. The senior said even in defeat he believes the Terps are reverting to form, when they were the class of the Big Ten.
“We’re getting back to being who we are. Everyone’s confidence is up, everyone’s on the right page and everyone has the right mindset,” Sulaimon said. “We just have to continue to build that continuity, continue to play hard and try to get better for the tournament.”
The recent string of defeats – three in the last four games – means Maryland won’t win the Big Ten title, however. Taking the conference was one of the team’s preseason goals, but Indiana clinched it with a victory against Iowa March 1.
“That’s fine. We know the bigger picture, and we’re not going to be devastated by every loss. It’s about how you respond,” Sulaimon said. “So we take that hit, but we know there’s some things we can still get better at and some goals we can achieve. We just have to finish the best we can, and where we end up is where we end up.”
Maybe Maryland’s next foe will prove the anecdote for the Terps’ recent woes. Illinois, typically a perennial NCAA contender, has fallen on hard times of late, sporting a sub-.500 record (13-16) in 2015-16. The Illini, who start four guards and only go about seven deep, are 5-11 in the Big Ten and sitting 12th in the standings.
Illinois, however, did beat Purdue by 14 points earlier this year, while the Illini have knocked off two opponents away from Champaign, Ill.: Minnesota in overtime and Rutgers in triple overtime. In fact, Illinois swept the season series against Minnesota, defeating the Gophers off, 84-71, in the squad’s most recent bout Feb. 28. OK, so beating the 2-14 Gophers isn’t something to write how about, but considering Maryland lost to Minnesota, well, the Terps probably can’t take Illinois lightly.
Most of Illinois’ struggles have come on the defensive end, which isn’t surprising considering they’re height deprived. The Illini rank 13th in the Big Ten in scoring defense (75 points per game allowed), last in field-goal percentage defense (46 percent), 13th in 3-point defense (37.4 percent), 13th in rebounding margin (minus-5.6), last in blocks (1.8 per game), and ninth in steals (5.5 per game).
The numbers are a bit better on the offensive end. No, the four-guard Illini don’t shoot like the Golden State Warriors, but they’ve been known to catch fire from downtown.
Overall, they’re seventh in the conference in scoring (73 points per game), 11th in field-goal percentage (43 percent), sixth in 3-point percentage (36.3 percent), third in free-throw shooting (74 percent) and sixth in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.3). The Illini, however, are dead last in offensive rebounding, pulling down less than eight a night.
One of the main reasons Illinois’ offense has improved of late is the emergence of former wing Malcolm Hill (6-6, 220), who shifted over to point guard in early February. The Illini were having major ball-handling issues, but Hill has alleviated some of the concerns. Granted, Hill does turn the ball over more than twice a night, but compared to Illini’s previous floor generals, head coach John Groce will take it.
The team’s -- and, really, one of the conference’s -- most potent offensive performers, Hill is averaging a robust 18.2 points per game (third in the Big Ten) on 44 percent shooting. He’s not particularly proficient from range (33 percent), but he cans his free-throws at an 82-percent rate (seventh in the Big Ten) and dishes out 3.4 assists a night (13th in the Big Ten). On top of that, Hill also pulls down 6.6 rebounds per, which sits 10th in the league, and has an Illini-high 15 blocks.
Joining Hill in the backcourt is Kendrick Nunn (6-3), another true offensive threat. Nunn is averaging 16.4 points per game (seventh in the Big Ten), with many of his field goals coming from beyond the arc, where he’s connecting at a 39-percent clip. Nunn’s 2.8 triples-per-night average ranks third in the conference.
Nunn is also shooting 43 percent from the field, and is efficient enough from the foul line (79 percent) too. Moreover, Nunn’s swiping 1.4 steals per game, putting him in the top-10 in the Big Ten.
Yet another guard, Khalid Lewis (6-3), has been starting at off-guard and doubling as a ball-handler. He’s raised his game recently, becoming one of Illinois’ prime assist men. Lewis drops three dimes a night, and only turns it over a little over once per game. He hasn’t developed into much of a threat offensive yet, however, averaging 3.8 points per.
The fourth starting guard, Jalen Coleman-Lands (6-3), ranks fourth on the team at 10.3 points per game. Like Nunn, he’s known for his ability to knock down the 3-ball, shooting an Illinois-best 43 percent from deep. Coleman-Lands averages 2.6 triples per game, sitting two spots behind his teammate for fifth in the Big Ten. He’s not exactly a defensive threat, though, nor is he very active on the glass.
Finally, the lone Illinois big man is center Michael Finke (6-10), who took over for the injured Michael Thorne (torn meniscus) back in November. Finke has an 8 and 4 line this year, showing a soft touch from distance (36 percent on 3s). He’s not terrific converting in the paint (44 percent), however, nor is he a noted rim protector (four total blocks).
Rotating in with Thorne is center Maverick Morgan (6-10), who sees about 20-30 minutes per bout, depending on the opponent. Morgan puts up just over seven points per game, shooting a team-high 57 percent from the field. He grabs about three boards a game and is second on the squad with 13 blocks.
If the Terps can stymie the Illini, they’ll earn a double-bye heading into the Big Ten tournament, which should help their chances of running the table. But for now, Turgeon just wants to see his quad put together a full 40 minutes March 3 and get back to their winning ways.
“Everybody goes through it. … But we had some time in practice, and I feel like we’re really going to start playing well,” Turgeon said. Whether that’s this week, next week or the week after, I’m not sure… Or league is terrific. I’ve been doing this a long time, and one through eight it’s terrific.
“ But we have a good team … Guys are really dialing in. You can see it in practice, guys are really working to get better and improving on weaknesses, which will help us down the road. I feel like we’re getting better and our best basketball is ahead of us.”