Young and missing two of its returning guards, the Maryland women's basketball team has gone winless under three Final Four banners while dreaming of an eventual fourth.
Preparing to play host to No. 15 Rutgers (8-2) at 7: 30 tonight, the Terrapins are 0-8 overall and 0-2 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Though two of the losses came to ranked teams, Clemson and Penn State, five came against teams in weak conferences. The margin of defeat has averaged 20.6 points, even against teams like Howard, Hampton and UNC-Greensboro.
With three starters gone from a team that finished 15-13, six of the seven newcomers on Chris Weller's 24th edition are freshmen, part of a class that recruiting guru Mike Flynn of the Blue Star Report called "top-20 caliber." In the worst start of her career, Weller said that this class -- "the new era" as she calls it -- will reach the top.
"This era will be back at the Final Four," Weller said.
Can she really think that?
"I know so. They have four years."
Rutgers returns four starters from last season's Sweet 16 appearance and is led by sophomore center Tammy Sutton-Brown, who last week was named the Big East's Player of the Week. Against the Scarlet Knights, who have four players averaging in double figures, the Terps may be in for an education.
"[The players] can learn what the intensity level is like in the top 20," Weller said. "You can't simulate that in practice. It doesn't look good on paper, but it's very valuable."
For now, however, the goal is a win or two to salvage this season for first-year players Rosita Melbourne, Marche Strickland, Deedee Warley, Cara Ferris, Ginji Perry, Ijeoma Agba and Marija Ilic. Juniors and seniors like Branka Bogunovic, Kelley Gibson and Tiffany Brown can't afford a four-year plan.
"We're at the bottom, but there are 16 games in the ACC, so we still have a chance," said Brown, a junior point guard who makes her season debut tonight. "Even though we're not winning now, if we can get better, by the end in the ACC tournament, we might have a chance of winning in that."
Brown, who led the Terrapins in three-point baskets last season with 36, returns after an academic suspension during the first semester. Gibson, a senior still recovering from a knee injury in preseason workouts, could return as soon as tonight. The absence of Brown and Gibson has allowed for some understanding from Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow. Instead of time to look in another direction, Yow said it's time for calm.
"Coach Weller has indicated that she believes the return of our two guards in January will have a significant and positive impact on the program," Yow said. "So we're looking forward to their return."
Weller said: "As long as people are working, there's nothing more you can ask. I've said over and over that I like this team. They have a good approach."
So far, the Terps have been out of position. Freshman off-guard Strickland has had to learn the point guard position at the college level, while forwards Warley and Ferris have been forced to defend guards. The only exception is 6-8 center Bogunovic, who has been limited by the extent to which Maryland can slow the tempo.
Weller said opponents have exploited the Terps' shortcomings, which may change when the guards come back.
"Everyone knows that you should just pressure us," Weller said of a team without experienced ballhandlers. "When we get Tiffany and Kelley back, we aren't going to see a bunch of [man-to-man], we aren't going to see a bunch of pressing. We're going to see an entirely different strategy than we're seeing right now."
Indeed, Weller contends that the 65-47 Wake Forest loss might have turned out differently with Brown and Gibson present. She said: "The Wake Forest game was broken up in the second half when they got those three transition buckets. I don't see them getting those buckets with Kelley and Tiffany on the court."
But the Terps needed frantic rallies last season to beat a 4-23 Wake Forest team, even with Gibson and Brown and the graduated trio of Sonia Chase, Stephanie Cross and Kalisa Davis that averaged 41.1 points per game.
Another question is whether Weller can keep players at Maryland long enough to make a difference. Former Terps Kim Bretz, Brandi Barnes and Meghan McIntyre, who might have been able to complement the incoming class, are at Illinois State, Villanova and Drexel, respectively.
"That's a product of the environment of that last era," Weller said of the departures. "It's different now. We've got a different group of people. And one of the reasons why I don't want to get too caught up in the won-lost record is that I don't want to put a lot of pressure on those people."
Pub Date: 12/22/98