I’ve been covering college basketball — men’s and women’s — for 30 years. Thirty years of hopes and possibilities, dashed dreams and what-ifs to wonder about. Thirty years of players and coaches striving to make this upcoming winter just a little bit better than last. Thirty years of working and playing for a chance to be the team that cuts the nets down in March and April.
Prepare yourselves for a journey that is never the same, even if the desired destination is. Let’s tip off…
We begin our 2021-22 regular season previews with the team that has the best chance to be playing in April: The Maryland Women’s Basketball team begins the season ranked No. 4.
In head coach Brenda Frese’s previous 19 seasons on campus, the Terrapins have begun the season ranked in the Top 10 a dozen times and in the Top 5 six times.
After finishing 26-3, but also two steps shy of the Final Four last March, Frese knows there are high expectations this year — and embraces them.
“Our motto this season, some of you have heard, is ‘complete the mission.’ Obviously we’re disappointed (last March),” Frese said last month at the team’s media day.
“Phenomenal season with winning the Big Ten and Big Ten Tournament, but for us in our postseason, we didn’t meet the goals we had set for ourselves.”
Maryland has returned five starters from an NCAA Tournament team before, most notably in 2006 when the too-young-to-win-it all Terps actually won the title and brought back not just all of their starters, but their top reserves and added a transfer from a Power Five conference.
But games and seasons are not played on paper and that squad, ranked No. 1 in the preseason en route to a 17-0 start, finished 28-6 and lost in the second round of the tournament. It would be eight years before the Terps would return to the Final Four.
“The lessons learned is one season doesn’t equal the other,” Frese said. “Too many things can happen to be factors, you have to stay healthy, (and) you have to have a team that quite honestly buy in.”
This year’s team begins with offense: Last year’s team led the nation in scoring and in assist-to-turnover ratio despite cobbling together a rotation revamped in the aftermath of multiple graduations and transfers.
Two main pieces from the previous winter returned and thrived: Ashley Owusu led the team in scoring with 19.4 points per game and was second in the Big Ten with 5.9 assists per game.
The two-time Big Ten Tournament MVP was voted Honorable Mention Preseason All-American and is the latest in a string of great point guards to play in College Park.
“I don’t know if I can compare Ashley to anyone else here,” Frese said. “She’s just not your typical point guard. She’s strong, the ability to break off people one-on-one. Her pull up jumper is very hard to defend, and then you’ve got great size with her.”
The goal this year for the soft-spoken junior who leads by example is to be more of a vocal floor general.
“I’m not going to say it’s super-challenging but in order for me to be what I want to be, I think I have no other option but to come out of my shell,” Owusu said. “Just remind myself to that I need to talk more and be more vocal.”
Owusu has plenty of help: She’s joined on the Big Ten’s Preseason First Team by junior guard Diamond Miller, who made the leap last winter by shooting almost 10% better and scoring almost 10 more points per game.
Calling Katie Benzan the “third guard” is a luxury, as she led the nation in three-point shooting (50% from outside the arc). Even when the graduate student isn’t connecting from downtown, Benzan is a solid distributor (over four assists per game).
The frontcourt returns the trio of players from near and far: Mimi Collins is from Waldorf, Marlyand, and Angel Reese (limited to 15 games due to injury last winter) hails from Baltimore while Chloe Bibby calls Australia home.
Bibby, Collins and Benzan were three transfers brought in last season that seamlessly became a part of the program.
But it doesn’t take a semi-newcomer to the scene to understand that for the Terps to make the leap from tournament regular (10 straight appearances, but just a pair of Sweet Sixteen showings since 2015) to Final Four contender means they need to shore up a team that ranks sixth in the Big Ten in points allowed, seventh in opponent’s shooting percentage, and 11th in defending the three.
“We know how to play defense, but it’s consistently playing that ‘Maryland defense’ for forty minutes,” Chloe Bibby said. “So that’s making sure you don’t allow middle, you box out, you rebound. It’s just all of those little things to be lock-down defenders.”
The early season will sharpen the Terps considerably, with games against No. 1 South Carolina, No. 3 Stanford, and No. 7 Baylor before Dec. 15.
“When you look at the nonconference schedule, the toughest schedule we’ll have ever played: three of the top five teams in the country (in last year’s final poll) we’re gonna face,” Frese said. “And then you look at the Big Ten will be the toughest we’ve ever faced in our time in the league.”
No longer the Terps’ sparring partner, this year’s conference boasts four other schools in the Preseason Top 25 (with Indiana, Iowa, and Michigan joining Maryland in the top 11 spots).
Maryland meets the other four conference schools in their final four regular season games. But that’s the finishing kick: the mission to Minneapolis (site of the 2022 Final Four) begins in earnest Tuesday morning.