Schmuck: Terps women up for challenge of matching their recent resume

Have the Terps women been elevated by the Big Ten or vice versa? Brenda Frese says it's a blend of both.

Maryland women's basketball coach Brenda Frese had to like the question, even though answering it would require a bit of diplomacy.

Her Terps swept the Big Ten in their debut season in the conference. They won all 18 regular-season games and then won the Big Ten tournament, which would be an imposing feat under any circumstances, but was particularly impressive in the greater context of the university's jump from the Atlantic Coast Conference.

So, the question — posed at Frese's news conference at Maryland Basketball Media Day — was this: Did the move to one of the top conferences in college sports elevate the Maryland women's program or … did the arrival of the Terps take Big Ten women's basketball to a new level?

"I think a blend of both," she said. "I think we were able to showcase ourselves in a new league, so I think — first and foremost — I would say the Big Ten Network raised our profile a lot. We were in homes that we haven't been in on a national scale. I could feel that immediately.

"But I also think from our end, it's a top-10 program with back-to-back Final Fours that has hopefully elevated, as well, the Big Ten Conference on a national level."

The women's program has been elite for a long time, reinforcing the reputation of the university as primarily a basketball school. The Terps have a tough act to follow heading into their second season in the Big Ten, but they will enter the season expected again to win the conference and go deep in the NCAA tournament.

Of course, that's what happens when you steal the show, so everyone is wondering what they can do for an encore. Where exactly do you go from undefeated in your new league, other than trying to sweep the conference again and take the next step toward Frese's second national championship?

"It was never really our plan last year to go undefeated," she said. "I mean, you just want to continue to win as many games as you can, and it was kind of resolved in terms of how we were. So, nothing really changes for us. We just want to be the best version of us. We want to set that bar high, and I think if we continue to work hard, things will pay off for us."

They made it look easy last year, winning their 21 Big Ten games (including the conference tournament) by an average of nearly 15 points. Only five times was the margin of victory less than 10. That might be indicative of a clear imbalance of power, but men's coach Mark Turgeon said Tuesday that none of that alters the magnitude of the achievement.

"I don't care what the talent level is," Turgeon said. "To be able to do that is pretty amazing. To win nine road games and then to go and win the tournament after you've beaten some of those teams. I don't know how many close games they had. I don't think they had a lot of them. To do that is pretty amazing and I think they're picked to win it again this year."

They'll have to do it without All-Big Ten guards Lexie Brown and Laurin Mincy, but Frese and her staff always seem to have the right mix of youth and experience. They return solid senior leadership to a team with a lot experienced underclassmen and incoming McDonald's All-Americans Kiah Gillespie and Brianna Fraser.

They'll also have to do it in the shadow of a men's team that will open the season ranked No. 3 in the USA Today Coaches Poll, but Frese isn't complaining. The fact that both Maryland basketball programs are flying high in the Big Ten, she said, works for everyone.

"It's all good," she said, "and I can flip it on the flip side. When I came in in '02, the men had just won a national championship and that exposure for the men transferred into so many households for us to recruit for the women when we were rebuilding. So, it's all great stuff to have two dominant programs and the exposure that both teams are receiving. It's all about Maryland."

Redshirt senior Brene Moseley recognizes that the men's team is going to get most of the headlines — even if the women have been the team in the Final Four the past two years — but she grew up rooting for both teams.

"I'm a Maryland kid, so I've grown up watching the Juan Dixons and the Steve Blakes," she said. "That's always been a part of my history, just this program in general. So, to be able to have the guys be on the caliber of us is definitely a good thing. I'm excited for them."

The feeling is mutual, said senior forward Jake Layman, who also marveled at the women's undefeated Big Ten debut.

"It was very impressive," Layman said. "I didn't know what to expect for them. I didn't know too much about Big Ten women's basketball going into it, but I was very impressed with what they did last year. The hard part for them is that they're going to be expected to do it again."

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

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Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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