Basketball around the Beltway: Maryland women look for another winning blend

­COLLEGE PARK, Md. — It’s a different year, but there are familiar expectations for the University of Maryland women’s basketball team. The Terrapins start the 2016-17 season as Big Ten favorites and in the Top 10 in national rankings (No. 6 in the writers’ rankings, No. 5 in the coaches’ poll).

“We really don’t talk about rankings or preseason and where people select us,” head coach Brenda Frese said. “Because for us, obviously we want to be there at the end. For us, it’s just about getting better.”

Frese enters her 15th season at the helm in College Park. She’s built a program that’s won ACC and Big Ten titles while becoming a fixture in the Sweet Sixteen and Final Four. This fall, she welcomes the nation’s number one recruiting class — and if there’s anyone who can successfully maximize six freshmen and fit them into a team coming off a 31-win campaign, it’s Frese.

“For me, this is my favorite part,” Frese said. “Blending the pieces, figuring out who goes where, what their strengths are and forming your team.”

She has a history of making things work. The 2006 National Championship team featured two freshmen starters and Frese’s 2014 Final Four team received major contributions from multiple freshmen.

The freshmen from the 2014 Final Four team are now seniors. Shatori Walker-Kimbrough had a breakout junior campaign, averaging 20 points and six rebounds per game, while leading the team in blocked shots and finishing second in steals. Each season, the Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, product has come back with extra wrinkles to her game. What is Walker-Kimbrough looking to add this fall?

“Be that puzzle piece, or that flexible, that versatile player coach needs me to be,” Walker-Kimbrough said. “If she needs me to rebound or strictly defend, be that player.”

Brionna Jones is the other senior on this roster. The low-post fixture averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds as a junior, with the highlight reel of a 24-point performance against No. 1 UConn. But both Walker-Kimbrough and Jones are more than just productive on the floor.

“What I’ve been most impressed from them with has been the leadership piece, of blending these six freshmen and our new players,” Frese said. “We are definitely playing for these two seniors this season.”

The Terps’ incoming freshman class boasts both quantity and quality, headlined by Idaho’s Destiny Slocum.

“Her motor is just incredible,” junior guard Kristen Confroy said. “She just runs all over the place. And her talent as a basketball player is largely due to her openness to learning — she’s always asking questions. I’m really excited to play with her.”

Slocum’s one of three five-star recruits in the six-player class — 6-foot-5 Jenna Staiti will provide depth down low while wing players Blair Watson and Kaila Charles will add perimeter presence on both ends of the floor.

In the Terps’ two preseason games, both Slocum and Charles started while all six saw extensive time on the floor. What also helped the blending of the incoming talent to an already stacked roster was the team’s summer trip to Italy.

“It just really helped because we really got some game feel,” Slocum said. “And just being in an uncomfortable area and a place we didn’t know, which is an important part of bonding — on and off the floor.”

With upperclassmen Kiara Leslie and Aja Ellison redshirting due to injuries, it’s that much more important for the new kids to contribute.

The Big Ten boasts a new-found nemesis in Ohio State, as the Buckeyes beat the Terps twice last year but finished behind Maryland in the standings and were upset in the conference tournament. They begin the year ranked one spot behind the Terrapins in both national polls. Indiana, Michigan State and Michigan are also expected to contend for NCAA Tournament berths.

Two non-conference games jump off the schedule: a Dec. 1 trip to No. 5 Louisville in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge and a Dec. 29 showdown in College Park against four-time defending champ UConn.

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