When word began to spread in College Park that Maryland was on the verge of leaving the ACC to join the Big Ten a couple years ago, reaction among many Terrapins faithful, including former athletes, wasn't exactly positive.
Disbelief was especially pronounced when it came to basketball, a sport in which the Terrapins not only had established a robust men's tradition but also were routinely the class of the ACC on the women's side. That success included a national championship under Coach Brenda Frese in 2005-06.
So among Frese's immediate assignments when the move became official was to allay concerns from some of her former players who contributed to Maryland's NCAA title and several of the school's record 10 ACC tournament championships.
These days, anticipation is trumping trepidation for the 15th-ranked Terrapins (9-2) with the Big Ten opener finally at hand. Maryland is set to play its first conference game against Ohio State (8-4) Monday night at Xfinity Center, which also is freshly minted this season after a naming-rights change.
"We're just really excited because this is our first game in the Big Ten," junior forward Malina Howard said. "Just knowing that we changed conferences, that we're going to be the first Maryland team to play a Big Ten game as part of the Big Ten, that's really awesome, but we've had the mind-set it doesn't matter who we're playing against, we're going to play Maryland basketball."
That rugged brand built around inside supremacy has undergone some modifications this season, based largely on personnel. Gone are powerful post players Alyssa Thomas and Alicia DeVaughn; yet conference coaches in preseason voting nonetheless selected Maryland as the favorite to win the Big Ten following Frese's second Final Four appearance.
The Terrapins are the second-highest ranked team among five Big Ten schools in the top 25 heading into conference play. Nebraska is co-No. 12, Rutgers is No. 17, Michigan State is 20th and Iowa is ranked 23rd. Northwestern also is receiving votes.
The ACC, meantime, has four teams ranked, with none lower than Duke at No. 10.
"Overall when you look at how the Big Ten Conference is doing, we have five teams ranked in the top 25, and you look at the non-conference schedule and the quality of wins," said Frese, whose familiarity with the Big Ten includes winning national coach of the year in her only season with Minnesota in 2002. "Ohio State is playing really well. The competition we now face each and every game gets a lot higher, so I'm excited to be able to see where our team is at."
The Terrapins have been able to thrive for the most part in their nonconference schedule thanks to one of Frese's most athletic teams in her 13 seasons at Maryland.
She has leaned on point guard Lexie Brown, shooting guard Laurin Mincy and small forward Shatori Walker-Kimbrough to push the ball on fast breaks and at times to pressure full-court and force turnovers that frequently lead to layups.
The pace in part has allowed four players to average in double figures in scoring this season, including Mincy, a redshirt senior, with a team-high 13.5 points. Walker-Kimbrough is averaging 12.3 points and ranks second among the starters in field goal percentage (58.8) and rebounds (5.4). Over the last three games, the sophomore has made 21 of 28 shots (75 percent), including 23 points on 8-for-12 shooting in a 94-50 victory over American Dec. 12.
The throwback presence inside is 6-foot-3 center Brionna Jones. The sophomore leads Maryland in rebounding (6.4) and is fourth in scoring (11.0) while shooting 59 percent.
The Terrapins are coming off a 110-51 win against Coppin State Dec. 21. The eight-day layoff is Maryland's longest of the season, with players coming back Friday for their first practice following winter break.
"We had a really good indication coming off of finals in terms of how we played, and I know last year when we came back with the rest and everything, we played some of our best basketball," Frese said. "Looking for nothing different. I think this group is highly motivated. I know they knew when they went home what they needed to do, so definitely looking forward to the matchup."