COLLEGE PARK — In the offseason, the Maryland women's basketball team welcomed the nation's top-rated
In the offseason, the Maryland women's basketball team welcomed the nation's top-rated recruiting class to campus, practiced for its summer trip as if it were an early-season tournament, traveled to Italy for two exhibition games and entered fall practice with a pair of preseason All-Americans anchoring a consensus top-10 team.
Maybe just as important, Breanna Stewart walked across a stage in Storrs, Conn., in a cap and gown.
"There's this thing called graduation in the women's game," Terps coach Brenda Frese joked Tuesday at the team's media day. "After four years, that's a great thing."
After four years of Connecticut dominance, after four seasons ending in Huskies titles, there is a renewed hope — and a not misguided one — that someone else can win it all this April. Maryland played Connecticut reasonably close in its lone matchup last year, and still Frese acknowledged Tuesday, somewhat surprisingly, that it was exciting to enter a season "really not playing for second place."
Indeed, as the Terps prepare for their Nov. 13 season opener against Massachusetts Lowell, the question being asked across the NCAA is not: Why pick anybody but the Huskies? It's more inclusive: Why not Maryland, or Notre Dame, or Louisville, or South Carolina, or any of the number of schools that have waited for an NCAA tournament that doesn't feel like a coronation event?
"It's really not hard to look at like, 'Oh, my gosh, everyone has a chance,'" sophomore forward Kiah Gillespie said.
"I feel like it's really open this year to anyone," freshman center Jenna Staiti said.
"This year, it's kind of like, 'It's anyone's game,' and that's an awesome feeling," junior guard Kristen Confroy said. "But in many ways, we had that all along."
That is maybe what got the Terps into trouble last March.
Only two teams all season got within 10 points of Connecticut, which featured Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck, all senior All-Americans, and all top-three picks in the WNBA draft. Notre Dame lost, 91-81, in early December. Twenty-three days later, Maryland fell, 83-73, at Madison Square Garden. (Connecticut sandwiched that scare with victories by a combined 108 points.)
The Terps were 30-3 entering the NCAA tournament, and they were Big Ten Conference regular-season and tournament champions for the second straight year. That first defeat against Connecticut had given them maybe as much confidence as any blowout win. "It was like, 'We have a shot,'" Confroy said. That was more than most teams thought.
Ultimately, a loss to the Huskies did end their season. But not those Huskies. Maryland was uncommonly inefficient in an opening-round NCAA tournament win over Iona at Xfinity Center, and faced a shorthanded Washington team in the second round. For the first time in three seasons, the No. 2 seed Terps didn't make it to the Final Four, or even out of College Park. The seventh-seeded Huskies won, 74-65.
There would be no rematch, only remorse: Washington next faced a No. 3 seed and a No. 4 seed before Syracuse, also a No. 4 seed, ousted it in the Final Four. The Orange, which Maryland had beaten by 18 in December, then lost by 31 in the NCAA final.
"I think because we matched up with [Connecticut] so well … we were kind of looking ahead at games," senior center Brionna Jones (Aberdeen) said. "And I think that kind of bit us in the butt a little bit."
The Terps feel now, as they felt then, that their best is good enough to beat anyone else. Across the Big Ten, coaches and media don't disagree; on Monday, Maryland again was picked to win the league in both preseason polls.
In senior guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Jones, both unanimous preseason all-conference picks, the Terps return the nation's most accurate 3-point shooter and reigning field-goal-percentage champion, respectively. Among the seven new players — six freshmen and one transfer — there should be enough to replace graduated point guards Brene Moseley and Chloe Pavlech, and front-court regulars Malina Howard and Tierney Pfirman.
Three more McDonald's All-Americans will help Maryland. Destiny Slocum is expected to step in as the team's primary ball-handler. Blair Watson, only recently cleared to return from a labrum injury, finished a recent scrimmage third on the team in scoring. Kaila Charles is the team's second-fastest player and could play at power forward in some lineups.
"We have a great chance of being a really great team," Walker-Kimbrough said. She is the only player faster than Charles, and also maybe the Terps' most deliberate, comparing the season to a marathon.
Maryland hosts Connecticut in late December, 13 games into the season, but she is, for now, more worried about what happens in between. That is not to discount the Huskies, for whom a step back is only a top-five preseason ranking. (They could enter College Park after Christmas with an 87-game winning streak.)
But the Terps' upset loss to Washington, Connecticut's offseason attrition and the specter of her own looming graduation have made Walker-Kimbrough more aware than ever of the process required for perfection. It's hard work, always.
Plus, Maryland goes to Louisville on Dec. 1. As good as the Huskies are, the Cardinals might be better. That's the fun of this season: the mastery of the sport's biggest mystery.
"I think everybody's fully aware that it's more wide open this year," Frese said. "There are no Breanna Stewarts on anyone's roster anymore."
Note: Junior forward Aja Ellison (knee) and junior guard Kiara Leslie (ankle) will redshirt this season after suffering injuries this offseason, Frese said. Each will have two years of eligibility remaining next season.