Last season, the Maryland women’s basketball team got into trouble by mostly staying out of it. For finishing the regular season 30-3, for winning both Big Ten Conference titles and entering the postseason ranked No. 4, the Terps were rewarded with a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament, harsh punishment commensurate with their lax strength of schedule (No. 117 nationally).
“Defending the entire body of work was really, really difficult,” Terry Gawlick, the chair of the Division I women’s basketball committee, said in March of Maryland’s surprise seeding. “It was tough because we felt Maryland didn’t test themselves in the same manner as [other] teams we were considering at the time.”
Exactly a month after Gawlick’s comments, and nearly three weeks after a Sweet 16 upset loss to an Oregon team that had emerged from the grueling Pac-12 Conference not fearing teams like the Terps, Maryland and South Carolina announced a two-year home-and-home series. It was as if Terps coach Brenda Frese had heard the message from on high: A nonconference schedule with just one national title-winning team just wouldn’t do.
So in a span of three games and seven days, No. 15 Maryland (1-0) will play two. On Monday in College Park: the fourth-ranked and defending NCAA champion Gamecocks (1-0). On Sunday in Hartford, Conn.: top-ranked and presumptive national champion Connecticut.
Only a midweek game Thursday against visiting Niagara will be a reminder of last year’s simpler times, when the Terps stuffed themselves ahead of Thanksgiving on empty calories — 100-point performances against teams like UMES and Mount St. Mary’s.
“If you could probably flip-flop the two schedules, I think you see what makes scheduling so hard. When we did put this schedule together, we thought our team was going to present in a different way compared to the losses that we had,” Frese said last week, referring to the team’s loss of Destiny Slocum, one of the nation’s top freshmen last season, and three other transfers.
“But I do think it's probably one of the toughest schedules we've ever had.”
The Terps have said that their summer trip to the World University Games in Taiwan has them ahead of schedule, but without graduated All-Americans Brionna Jones (Aberdeen) and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, they struggled somewhat Friday in their season opener.
In a 91-58 home win over Albany, seven players had at least two turnovers, and the team had 21 in all. Maryland never shot better than 40.9 percent from the field in a quarter, finishing at 37.3 percent for the game.
Now comes a South Carolina team that Friday held Alabama State to 31 points and 20.4 percent shooting. It will be a measuring-stick game for two teams whose offseason reconstructions — other than the office space the Gamecocks needed to clear for their new trophy — weren’t so different.
Three South Carolina players, two of whom had a year of eligibility remaining, were taken in the top 10 of the WNBA draft in April. None are as talented as senior forward A’ja Wilson, a 6-foot-5 National Player of the Year favorite who could give Maryland’s shorter frontcourt migraines Monday. Of course, the Terps would rather have to defend her in November than a really, really not-difficult schedule in March.
“We're up for the challenge at any time,” said sophomore guard Kaila Charles, one of two returning Terps starters, along with senior guard Kristen Confroy. “So that's going to help us gain experience on what we need to work on and what we need to improve and what we have to unpack since it's so early in the season. And we'll use that experience to build as we go through to the tournament.”
At a glance: Maryland
Projected finish: Second of 14 in Big Ten Conference
Game to watch: Jan. 22 vs. Ohio State. The Buckeyes hosted last season’s sole meeting, and their 98-87 upset win cost Maryland the outright Big Ten regular-season title. The conference’s two best teams are scheduled to meet just once again in 2017-18, and the Terps get the game in College Park. They also get one last year of Kelsey Mitchell, the star Ohio State guard who has led the Buckeyes to three straight victories in the series.
Best-case scenario: Maryland’s top-ranked 2016 recruiting class, even without departed star Destiny Slocum, begins to bloom during a demanding nonconference slate, and the team goes on to claim another Big Ten title (or two) and make a deep NCAA tournament run.
Worst-case scenario: Inexperience at point guard hamstrings the offense, a lack of size inside limits the defense, injuries strain the Terps’ shaky depth, and the team struggles to stay ranked.