The Maryland women's basketball team will have a different look this season. With six freshmen dotting the 14-player roster, the Terps are younger than they have been in several years. But they are hoping for similar results.
The Terps have qualified for the postseason each of the last 13 years, making 12 appearances in the NCAA tournament and one trip to the Women's National Invitation Tournament. The 2015-16 team continued Maryland's winning tradition, finishing with a 31-4 record, a second consecutive Big Ten championship and another trip to the NCAA tournament. A 74-65 second-round loss to eventual Final Four participant Washington brought Maryland's season to its earliest end since the 2010-11 campaign.
Despite the loss of several key players to graduation, the Terps are expected to be one of the nation's top teams again. Maryland, No. 6 in the preseason Associated Press poll, can point to the return of seniors Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Brionna Jones as reasons for that high ranking.
The veteran duo has played an integral role in Maryland's recent success. During the past three seasons, the Terps have compiled a 93-14 record, won consecutive Big Ten championships and made two Final Four trips during their three NCAA appearances.
Head coach Brenda Frese is relying on Walker-Kimbrough and Jones to not only continue their production but to also help acclimate the freshmen class.
"We know what we can expect from them, both on and off the court," Frese said. "What I've been most impressed with is their leadership. Bri is someone who still leads by example, but when she does speak the team listens. Shatori has a strong voice and has been consistent every day."
Six freshmen and two sophomores are on the roster, but Walker-Kimbrough indicated the Terps' lofty goals haven't changed.
"It's not necessarily about our opponent but about how great we can be," Walker-Kimbrough said. "We had some extra practices during our foreign trip [to Italy], so we got to build the chemistry early on. I feel that this is the most versatile team we've had since I've been here."
Walker-Kimbrough and Jones were first-team All-Big Ten choices and candidates for college basketball's major awards last season. Walker-Kimbrough, a 5-foot-11 guard, averaged a team-high 19.5 points per game and was the nation's most accurate 3-point shooter at .545.
Jones is a force in the low post. The 6-foot-3 center enters her senior season as the ninth-leading rebounder in program history and ranks eighth in blocked shots. Jones nearly averaged a double-double last season, finishing with 15.2 points and 9.8 rebounds per game. Jones, the national leader with a .665 field-goal percentage, has been working to further diversify her offensive game.
"I want to be more consistent with my jump shot and be more willing to face up [to the basket]," said Jones, who will be joined by younger sister Stephanie on the Terps' roster this winter. "It's all about being more versatile."
Jones will be aided in the frontcourt by the return of sophomore forward Kiah Gillespie (5.1 points, 2.8 rebounds per game) and sophomore center Brianna Fraser (4.0 points, 2.7 rebounds).
Junior guard Kristen Confroy is the Terps' third returning starter. The 5-foot-9 Confroy, who made 40.8 percent of her 3-point attempts last season, averaged 8.0 points and 4.2 rebounds for the 2015-16 squad.
"I think this team is similar to last year's, in terms of its work ethic and the mentality that we're going to get better every day," Confroy said. "But it's much different in terms of the team dynamic. We have a lot of new energy and talent."
Maryland will have to replace several key players, including point guards Brene Moseley (11.6 points, team-leading 5.9 assists) and Chloe Pavlech (3.2 assists). The Terps also lost forward Tierney Pfirman (9.1 points, 4.9 rebounds) and center Malina Howard, who contributed 5.3 points and 4.4 rebounds per outing, from the frontcourt. In addition, junior guard Kiara Leslie and junior forward Aja Ellison are being medically redshirted this season.
But the loss of those six players will be countered by the arrival of the nation's top freshmen class. The six-player group consists of guards Kaila Charles, Sarah Myers, Destiny Slocum and Blair Watson, forward Stephanie Jones and center Jenna Staiti. Charles, Slocum and Watson earned McDonald's All-America recognition during their high school senior years.
"We're really looking forward to blending in so many new faces," Frese said. "[Our freshmen] are fearless and extremely competitive, and I love their mentality."
Slocum, who was the Idaho Gatorade State Player of the Year during her junior and senior seasons at Mountain View High School, could step into the point guard spot vacated by the graduations of Moseley and Pavlech. Charles, a Glenn Dale, Md., native who played three seasons at Eleanor Roosevelt High School and finished her prep career at Riverdale Baptist, and Watson should also get extensive playing time in the Maryland backcourt.
"To be able to surround yourself with not only the amazing girls that are already here but also the group that have just come in, [makes] me happy where I am," said Watson, a 6-foot guard from Nutley, N.J. "I'm ready to be challenged and see how hard and how physical the game is at the college level."
The Terps will also welcome redshirt junior Ieshia Small, who sat out last season after transferring from Baylor. Frese expects the 6-foot guard, who averaged 2.9 points and 1.4 rebounds per game during her two seasons at Baylor, to play multiple positions.
"I see my role as being a contributor and helping wherever it's needed," said Small, who was the 2013 Florida Gatorade Player of the Year. "Last year, sitting out was a blessing in disguise because I got to learn the system, the plays and my teammates."
That familiarity should help the Terps in their quest to retain the Big Ten title. Maryland, which won the conference championship during its first two seasons in the league, was chosen as the 2016-17 favorite in the Big Ten's preseason poll of head coaches and media members. But the Terps should get a strong challenge from Ohio State, which finished second in the regular-season standings last winter. Indiana and Michigan State are also expected to be major factors in the conference race.
Before the Big Ten season opens at Minnesota Jan. 1, the Terps will face a challenging nonconference schedule. Maryland will play Arizona State and Washington State at the Nov. 25-26 South Point Shootout in Las Vegas. The Terps also will travel to face two 2016 NCAA tournament participants in preseason No. 5 Louisville (ACC-Big Ten Challenge Dec. 1) and Duquesne (Dec. 21), before battling defending national champion Connecticut Dec. 29 at Xfinity Center.
"We'll be tested early," Frese said. "The competition that we'll face throughout the nonconference schedule will really help prepare us for conference play."
Issue 227: November 2016