For UM's 'Coach B,' a question of X's and O's

The Baltimore Sun

There needs to be a memo from the athletic director's office pronto.

To: Gary, Brenda

From: Debbie

Re: Meeting in my office

Let's get together this week and exchange some notes on coaching. I'll provide bagels.

What an odd turn of events in College Park. These past several months, a hot spotlight has shone on the recruiting efforts surrounding Gary Williams and the Maryland men's basketball team. His in-game coaching abilities, however, were never in question. He's among the best in the nation.

Interestingly, down the Comcast Center hall, there has never been a reason to think twice about Brenda Frese's recruiting efforts. When it comes to unearthing talent, there aren't many better. But with Monday's exit from the NCAA tournament, Frese has suddenly invited some questions about her X's and O's abilities.

For the women's team, this offseason isn't really a crossroads. The program should remain strong. The team should be an Atlantic Coast Conference front-runner again next season. And it should be expected to win games in March.

But what the past couple of NCAA tournament games have done is cast some doubt on Frese as a game coach. For the past four years, she has had the luxury of winning games with a lot of talent in her tool belt. But with seniors Kristi Toliver and Marissa Coleman - the last two pieces from the 2006 national championship team - embarking on professional careers, we're about to learn a lot more about Frese's coaching chops.

For the past four seasons, Frese has had a core of players who collectively demolished the school's record books. By late next week, Toliver, Coleman, Crystal Langhorne, Shay Doron and Laura Harper will all be pros, and Frese will embark on her own journey of sorts: reminding the women's basketball world she was a pretty good coach before setting foot in College Park and unearthing those five gems.

It will be a challenge. Frese has had incredible scorers, so she has been able to rely on her teams' running up the score. This season, Maryland had the third-best offense in the country, in fact. For the Terps, defense was simply biding time until they got the ball back.

We saw in Maryland's final two tournament games the inherent risk in such strategy. At some point, you might face a team that understands defense, that can limit your scoring threats and that can exploit your defensive weaknesses.

That's what flustered the Terps on Saturday in their come-from-behind win over Vanderbilt and then again Monday night in losing to Louisville and Jeff Walz, a former assistant to Frese who used smart, creative game-planning to advance his team to the Final Four in St. Louis. In that second game, especially, Maryland was beaten before the game tipped off.

Frese failed to make important adjustments in both games. Against Vanderbilt, if it weren't for Coleman's single-handedly taking over the game, the Terps would've been back in College Park in time for Sunday Mass.

But the real questions arose in Monday's Elite Eight matchup with the Walz's Cardinals. Frese stuck with an ineffective zone defense for all but the final few minutes of the first half even though Louisville was out-shooting and out-rebounding Maryland.

The bigger problem again was that the Terps couldn't solve the opposition's defense. Coleman, fresh off 42 points against Vandy, scored Maryland's first basket against the Cardinals, but the Terps never could get her involved in the offense. In the second half, the comeback strategy seemed to hinge entirely on Toliver's jacking up three-point attempts and allowing momentum to take over. It didn't work.

Not much point in rehashing old games, though. The buzzer has sounded on the season.

Looking ahead, it will be interesting to see what Frese does with next season's Terps. She returns three starters, but it will be a different team, a group that can't set foot onto the court and expect the scoreboard to shake.

And because Frese's specialty is bringing in talent, she has reloaded.

Among next season's new players is a 6-foot-7 center from New Jersey named Essence Townsend and a quick 5-6 point guard from Delaware named Dara Taylor, a McDonald's All-American.

This season's role players will have no choice but to step into starring roles next season. The onus is on this younger group to build on what the Title Terps started: like Kim Rodgers, a freshman who played big during the ACC tournament; and Lynetta Kizer, a freshman who can be a major force under the hoop; and Anjal? Barrett, another freshman who has shown great court sense; and sophomore Marah Strickland (Towson Catholic), who after struggling against Vanderbilt responded by scoring 15 against Louisville.

Dee Liles, who had 48 rebounds in four NCAA tournament games, and Illinois transfer Lori Bjork will be the lone seniors next year.

There will be a lot of talent but also a lot of question marks. One looms larger than the rest: What adjustments will Frese make to thrive without any of the players who brought a national championship to College Park?

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