COLLEGE PARK, Md. — There are those who will be saying — with Maryland showing up ranked ninth by the writers and 10th by the coaches in the preseason — that the Terps are back. If so, when exactly did they leave?
It says a lot about a program’s high standards when a 26-8 season plus a trip to the Big Ten Tournament Championship Game and a loss in the NCAA Tournament Second Round registers as a “less than ideal year.” Since the Terrapins broke through and won the 2006 National Championship, they’ve been a deep March fixture. Players change, from Kristi Toliver to Alyssa Thomas. Assistants change, from Jeff Walz to Tina Langley. Conferences and rivals change, from Duke in the ACC to Ohio State in the Big Ten. Arena names even change, from Comcast to Xfinity. But with a few rare exceptions, every March coach Brenda Frese has her team in contention for conference titles, as well as playing to reach the third weekend of the Big Dance.
Last winter, Maryland was hamstrung with graduations (All-Americans Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Brionna Jones) and transfers (with National Freshman of the Year Destiny Slocum the big loss), as well as injuries (Blair Watson’s torn ACL torpedoed hopes for a fourth straight Big Ten title). This fall Coach Frese has reloaded with two highly-touted freshmen plus a transfer to fill out a roster with four returning starters.
“I don’t know if a coach is ever comfortable going into a season because I think we always see our holes and weaknesses,” said Frese. “But I think the ones we couldn’t cover up last year we’ve been able to fill.”
In other words, the Terps are back — picked to finish first in the Preseason Big Ten poll.
Junior Kaila Charles enters her third year as a starter. The Glenn Dale, Maryland, native went from peripheral contributor as a freshman to primary weapon as a sophomore, leading the team with 18 points and eight rebounds per game last winter.
“She really grew up and became a leader for us last season,” Frese said. “We’re sliding her a little bit more so out on the perimeter, really looking to use her versatility.”
For Charles to be able to flex outside, the coach needs more consistent production from the likes of senior Brianna Fraser and junior Stephanie Jones. Both showed flashes last year. If not, bring on freshman phenom Shakira Austin.
“She gives us a look that we didn’t have last year. The size, the ability and the talent. Six-foot-five, long, fluid, active — and really has a chance to be really special in our program,” Frese said.
Two years behind Charles at nearby Riverdale Baptist, Austin might not be thrown into the starting lineup like her fellow alum was as a freshman, but will definitely see major minutes as the season progresses.
The other impact freshman, Taylor Mikesell, started both exhibitions for the Terps. The guard from Masillon, Ohio, has already made her mark as one of the program’s hardest workers.
“The biggest problem I have is trying to get her out of the gym,” Frese said. “Whether it be shooting the ball from the three-point line or her ball-handling, she’s going to be able to give us a lot of versatility at the off-guard and point guard position.”
Sophomore Channise Lewis started at the point last season and averaged six assists per game, while learning the college game on the fly; she’s back a little wiser.
The X Factor this season may rest once again on the ACL of Blair Watson. The junior was just beginning to blossom when she went down to injury last January, and was fully cleared for practice last month.
At her best, Watson is the difference-maker on both ends of the floor that every championship level team needs. If we’ve learned anything from previous knee injuries to Terps, from Lauryn Mincy to Brene Moseley, it takes more than a calendar year for a player to return to form. But even on limited minutes, Watson could be a huge weapon off the bench this winter.
The pre-conference slate includes a road game at No. 10 South Carolina, as well as games against Georgia and Georgia Tech. League play tips off at Penn State Dec. 28, and this year’s Big Ten will feature a rebuilding Ohio State (minus Kelsey Mitchell and the crew that won the league last year) as one of five schools also receiving votes in the preseason rankings. The only other conference school currently in either Top 25 is Iowa (rated 13th by the writers and 17th by the coaches).
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