Even with the Final Four not for another five months, the Maryland women's basketball players already are having wistful thoughts of New Orleans. The Crescent City is the site of the sport's showcase event this season, and the fifth-ranked Terps say they fully expect to be there contending for the second national championship in program history and the first since 2006.
Maryland came tantalizingly close to reaching the national semifinals one season ago. The Terps had dispatched Texas A&M, the reigning national champion, in the regional semifinals; won a record 10th Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship; and logged 30 wins for the fourth time since coach Brenda Frese arrived in College Park in 2002.
So the 80-49 loss to Notre Dame in the regional final — the Terps' most lopsided defeat of the season — was something of a shock, and is fueling the team's long-range goal this season.
"Of course," senior forward Tianna Hawkins said when asked whether failing to advance to this season's Final Four would be considered a disappointment, "because we were so close last season. We know what it takes to get there. It's just a matter of us going out every night and showing it."
The Terps have a number of reasons for such optimism, starting with guard-forward Alyssa Thomas. Last season, Thomas became the first sophomore in program history to be named ACC Player of the Year, and she received national acclaim shortly thereafter by being rewarded with a first-team All-America selection.
She's also part of a junior class that has Maryland well positioned for next season, as well as the one that begins tonight against Mount St. Mary's.
"Just to almost be there and not make [the Final Four], I know we definitely want to go that extra mile this year," said Thomas, who last week was named a preseason All-American and is one of four starters back for the Terps. "We're going to do whatever it takes to push past the Elite Eight."
Classmate Laurin Mincy is another featured player whose production swelled last season, especially during the NCAA tournament. The guard combined to score 45 points in the second and third rounds, and this season her role is set to expand from scorer to primary ballhandler.
Mincy has been playing point guard in the preseason since Brene Moseley, the presumptive starter at the position, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee during a scrimmage Oct. 21. The sophomore, who was a Washington Post first-team All-Met as a junior at Paint Branch, had surgery Friday and is out for the season.
With Mincy running the offense, guard Katie Rutan becomes that much more important. The long-distance shooting specialist is a junior who sat out last season after transferring from Xavier, where she was named to the Atlantic 10 All-Rookie team in 2010 and twice made seven 3-pointers in one game.
"We have a lot to uphold being an Elite Eight team last year," Mincy said. "But with our starting point guard down, we have a lot of work to do this season."
Thomas also has been playing point guard in spots during practice, and with her in the backcourt, Maryland can field a lineup with no player under 6 feet. It's a tall lineup that's tactically suited to the Terps' concentration on rebounding and second-chance points.
Last season, Maryland finished second in the country in rebounding margin (plus-12.9) thanks largely to the frontcourt of Hawkins, who led the nation in field-goal percentage (.623), Thomas and 6-4 center Alicia DeVaughn. As a sophomore last season, DeVaughn was selected to the ACC All-Defensive team after starting all but one game.
That trio has provided plenty of advice to 6-4 freshman Malina Howard, who's next in line to continue Maryland's tradition of robust interior play. Howard is the centerpiece of Frese's most recent recruiting class and chose Maryland over other established national powers, including Connecticut, Tennessee and Notre Dame.
"The big thing when you come to Maryland is you come here to win," Frese said. "You come here to win championships, and we all know the bitter taste of our ending last year, and we have really high goals for ourselves."
What we know: Maryland has four starters back from a team that went 31-5 and came within a game of the Final Four. The fifth-ranked Terps were picked to finish second in the ACC behind Duke, which is plenty of motivation for the reigning conference tournament champions. The team will be tested early in nonconference play with road games against Connecticut, Nebraska and Delaware, all ranked in the top 18.
What we don't know: Losing presumptive starting point guard Brene Moseley to a torn ACL during a preseason scrimmage was a damaging blow. How much impact that will have depends on whether Laurin Mincy adjusts smoothly to becoming the primary ballhandler.
Prediction: Maryland remains stocked with talent. The Terps won't have trouble scoring or rebounding, but a short bench might catch up with them in the NCAA tournament. Still, it's safe to expect at least another trip to the regional final.