University of Maryland women's basketball team is heading to Italy to practice, play two games, and tour the area. (Jonas Shaffer, Baltimore Sun video)
COLLEGE PARK — Ahead of the Maryland women's basketball team's trip to Italy on Friday, the Terps were given a class project. Players would be traveling soon to Rome, Florence, Milan and Lake Como, about which they knew poco (not much). Their task: Essentially, make a "For Dummies" presentation on their assigned city.
The freshmen got Rome, the country's capital. Kaila Charles, a guard from Glenn Dale, took care of the city's history. Architecture was covered by another newcomer, as was geography, and even the transcontinental time difference. Charles was reluctant Wednesday to divulge too much of her own contributions, maybe because the medium — a rap video — said as much as the message.
It was an admittedly silly thing, but also one the Terps, thankfully, hadn't bothered to try in another language. When, according to Charles, fellow freshman guard Destiny Slocum rapped, "She makes your head have an epiphany/She's spitting bars like a well-structured symphony," there was no need to reach for an Italian-English dictionary. Nothing had been lost in translation.
This is, after all, a summer, of gains, not losses. Ranked the No. 7 team in the country in ESPN's offseason poll, Maryland has welcomed a six-member recruiting class considered the nation's best. It has used all 10 of its extra practices allowed by the NCAA before the program's first offseason travel abroad in a decade. It's the introduction to a season the team hopes will produce more trips to remember.
"You can't put a price tag on the value" of these excursions, said coach Brenda Frese, whose team's 31-win season ended abruptly in March, in the second round of the NCAA tournament, against eventual semifinalist Washington. She added: "We're already sprinting, and we won't be walking into these [fall] practices where we know what to expect and the intensity level of what it's going to take."
With just two games scheduled over eight days, the Terps' tour is more "European Vacation" than EuroLeague competition. Shopping plans have been hatched, tourist destinations mulled over, and Frese smiled as she remembered one highlight of the team's last trip, made after the team's 2006 national title, when center Aurelie Noirez reunited with her former French club.
Entering her 15th year at Maryland, Frese looked as relaxed as someone preparing to take twin 8-year-old boys across the Atlantic Ocean could be. Recruiting has entered a month-long quiet period, and the Terps, with All-America guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and center Brionna Jones (Aberdeen) returning to lead one of the nation's most efficient offenses, figure to be prohibitive favorites in the Big Ten Conference. Again.
Frese is also looking forward to speaking only to the people she absolutely has to. "A lot of people aren't going to be able to reach me on my cellphone," Frese said, "which is a beautiful thing."
Of the Terps' 14 players, eight have not been outside the United States, and the hope is that the team will be better in March for having explored, dined and played together on the other side of the world.
Slocum, the most celebrated of Maryland's three McDonald's All-America recruits, was a member of the under-19 U.S. squad that won gold last summer in the FIBA World Championship in Chekhov, Russia. She remembers the differences in culture and architecture from home in Meridian, Idaho. But otherwise, her experience abroad might well encapsulate her transition to the Division I level.
"You think it's going to be completely different and you're going to be blown out of your mind, but you don't realize that people overseas are also almost exactly the same as you," said Slocum, who's challenging Baylor transfer Ieshia Small at the vacant point guard position. "They just speak a different language, do things a little bit different."
Jones went far afield for Team USA last summer, too, bringing home a World University Games gold medal from Gwangju, South Korea. This trip, she thinks, will be more fun.
In Florence alone are the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, better known as the Duomo, and Michelangelo's David, civic icons of the Renaissance.
Also in Florence? The headquarters of luxury brand Gucci. Maybe, if Jones can scrimp and can save just enough of her per-diem allowance, she can afford something. "But I probably won't spend that much money," she said. "More like window shopping."
On Tuesday, the team ran through security precautions. Pickpockets are of particular concern in Italy, but Charles did not seem discouraged.
She planned to photograph what she could, preserve her memories of a special trip with what might be a special team. "I want to document it," she said, sounding less like a wide-eyed freshman than a veteran tourist.