- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 18, 2016

COLLEGE PARK — Jake Layman stalked Nigel Hayes as he drove to the basket. It was not Layman’s primary responsibility to be there at that moment, but Hayes, Wisconsin’s leading scorer, had worked past his defender and found a seam along the baseline.

As Hayes went up for a dunk, Layman met him at the rim and turned him away. It was a stout defensive play, the type that Maryland coach Mark Turgeon has become accustomed to seeing his senior forward make this season.

Layman finished the game with three blocks — all in the first four minutes of the game — but the effort felt futile as the Terrapins were upset by the Badgers, 70-57, in a game that was all but over before halftime last Saturday at Xfinity Center.

“We just didn’t look like ourselves out there,” Layman said on Wednesday, with a trace of disappointment still lingering in his voice. “The defense needs to be our identity moving forward. We have so many good defenders that teams should struggle when they see us on the floor.”

No. 6 Maryland (22-5, 10-4 Big Ten), which lost, 68-63, to Minnesota on Thursday, entered the game ranked third in the Big Ten with an average of 64 points allowed.

With a home game Saturday against Michigan, the conference tournament looming three weeks away and the NCAA tournament just beyond that, Layman, who’s averaging 10.3 points and 5.6 rebounds per game, strives to be the face of that defensive identity.

A different world

It hasn’t always been this way for Layman, who arrived in College Park as a heralded scorer from King Philip Regional High School in Wrentham, Massachusetts, where he scored more than 1,700 points. There, Layman rarely had to focus on his defense — and it showed.

Six games into his freshman season, Turgeon put him on the court against Northwestern and Layman, who had averaged 15.6 minutes in his first five games with the Terrapins, lasted just three after a player blew past him.

“I put him in and he got beat backdoor and I couldn’t play him the rest of the game,” Turgeon said. “I mean, he had no idea.”

The game, at that time, was moving quickly around Layman, far faster than he could process. Standing at 6-foot-9, Layman has always been athletic, but he struggled to get himself into position to utilize his strengths.

“My freshman and sophomore year were definitely struggles on defense,” Layman said. “I had to put a lot of extra work in. I really didn’t understand the rotations or different principles Coach Turgeon was teaching.”

By the end of Layman’s sophomore year, Turgeon’s defensive challenging scheme was coming into focus enough that the Terrapins’ coach felt comfortable using Layman to guard former Virginia standout Joe Harris, who was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014.

Layman entered his junior season ready to work feverishly with Kyle Tarp, Maryland’s director of basketball performance, to sharpen his foot speed. There was also an earnest effort to strengthen his wiry frame — a constant battle for Layman, who weighed in the neighborhood of 190 pounds when he graduated from King Philip.

Now, Layman’s weight hovers around 213 pounds — still slightly undersized — but he’s equipped with a skill set that has helped him emerge as one of Maryland’s most versatile defenders.

“It’s crazy, just seeing Jake our first practice, he couldn’t close out right and everyone was beating him off the drive,” junior forward Damonte Dodd said. “Now, coach will call him our best perimeter or best post defender. He’s made tremendous strides. We all know he’s offensively talented, but he worked so hard, just doing footwork drills and ladder drills to guard on the perimeter.”

And that block against Hayes and Wisconsin?

“A play like that, Jake probably would have just watched him go up or just not have been fast enough to get there,” Dodd said. “That just shows the hard work he’s put in.”

Keeping both feet in

Turgeon was relieved when Layman decided to return to Maryland, but more importantly, the Terrapins’ coach has been impressed by the level at which the forward dedicated himself in his final season. In past experiences, Turgeon said he has had players flirt with the idea of bolting for the NBA, only to return for their final year with a “one foot in, one foot out” mentality, counting the remaining days on campus.

Layman valued graduating on time, too, which is why Layman eschewed another summer with USA Basketball to load up his class schedule. He entered his final semester with just seven credits to complete, something Turgeon calls a “story within itself.”

“He was all in when he came back,” Turgeon said. “He had both feet in and has worked really hard and as a coach, that’s what you want.”

It’s the same loyalty Layman exhibited when he arrived at King Philip, a team with nothing but an 0-58 record to its name and a first-year coach in Sean McInnis. By his sophomore season, Layman heard the calls from his teammates on the AAU circuit trying to lure him to prep schools like Tilton Academy, where Philadelphia 76ers and former Kentucky center Nerlens Noel, Iowa State’s Georges Niang and Kansas’ Wayne Selden ultimately became teammates.

Layman never wavered and helped King Philip to a pair of state tournament appearances. McInnis is hardly surprised that Layman has been a critical component of a similar transformation in College Park, in which he helped Maryland reverse course since five players transferred following a 17-15 record in 2013-14.

“We had one discussion [about Layman leaving King Philip and] it was an honest discussion,” McInnis recalled. “We both committed to each other and said we’d see each other through and he’d help bring this program up and build the community up.”

When Layman decided to return to Maryland — a decision he made with the close guidance of his parents, Tim and Claire — he also had a conversation with Turgeon regarding his hopeful path to the NBA.

“He’s right there,” Turgeon said. “In the right situation, the right coach and right system, he’s an NBA player and we’re hoping that’s all going to work out for him.”

Yet once Layman’s final season began, that topic was pushed to the background because just like Layman honored his commitment to McInnis at King Philip, he was going to do the same for Turgeon and Maryland.

Too much progress had been made for Layman to lose sight of the final goal, which has always been to help Maryland win a national championship, something the team is closer to now than it ever was in the last four seasons.

“We’re having a great year,” Layman said. “We can’t take any games off going forward because every game means something. We don’t want to be the team that should have been good and ended up losing.”

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