Undaunted by losing all five starters from a team that won the Big Ten women’s basketball championship, Maryland coach Brenda Frese restocked the roster with enough talent to potentially keep the Terrapins atop a conference they’ve ruled since arriving in 2014.
Maryland is among five Big Ten teams in the preseason Top 25 poll. The Terps check in at No. 12, Indiana is 16, Northwestern follows at 17, Ohio State garnered the No. 20 spot and Michigan is at No. 25.
So, despite its 92-12 regular-season record in the conference over the past six years, Maryland is no shoo-in to again win another title.
“You’re going to have competition from top to bottom. It’s not going to be an easy gimme when you look at how much the rosters are changing with transfers,” Frese said, “You’re really going to have to be prepared every single night.”
Frese is not alone in that opinion.
“We feel like we are deeper and stronger as a conference than we have ever been before,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said.
Maryland lost stars Kaila Charles, Taylor Mikesell, Stephanie Jones, Blair Watson and Shakira Austin from a team that won its last 17 games. The Terrapins were poised to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, which was canceled because of the pandemic.
Frese retained Big Ten freshman of the year Ashley Owusu and rising guard Diamond Miller, welcomed transfers Katie Benzan (Harvard) and Chloe Bibby (who averaged 7.5 points and 5.2 rebounds last winter at Mississippi State) and convinced feisty forward Angel Reese to come to College Park.
“I’ve been real fortunate here at Maryland to recruit some pretty incredible special players, but when it’s all said and done, (Reese) might rank right up there as the most competitive player that I’ve ever coached,” said Frese, who has been at Maryland since 2002 and won the NCAA Tournament title in 2006.
Maryland’s biggest problem could be a lack of depth. While waiting for Zoe Young to return from knee surgery, Frese has only nine players available for the opener against Davidson on Nov. 27.
“Given the graduation and the losses that we had, it’s a big concern,” Frese acknowledged.
Keeping the players from contracting COVID-19 is imperative, for Maryland and every Big Ten team because the conference deems that a student who tests positive must sit out at least 21 days.
“The biggest thing is to try to stay healthy. With this pandemic you never know,” Purdue coach Sharon Versyp said.
Indiana returned four starters from a team that notched a school-record 24 wins last season and reached the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament for the first time since 2006.
The Hoosiers were picked to win the conference title this season in a poll of the 14 head coaches, and they’re looking to make good on that prediction.
“We have a very motivated, very hungry group,” coach Teri Moren said of her team, which is led by first-team all-Big Ten stars Grace Berger and Ali Patberg.
LOOKING FOR AN ENCORE
Northwestern enjoyed one of its finest seasons in 2019-20, earning a share of the regular-season crown with Maryland and winning a school-record 26 games.
“We’re coming off a great year and return a core of players with a lot of experience, and we like the people coming in,” coach Joe McKeown said.
The Wildcats have high-scoring guard Lindsey Pulliam back but lost Abi Scheid and Abbie Wolf, team leaders who provided height under the basket.
“You don’t really replace them. You move on,” McKeown said.
Michigan returns four starters from a team that went 21-11 last season and will be looking to improve upon a 10-8 record in the conference.
The Wolverines will be counting on Naz Hillmon, a 6-foot-2 junior who last season led the team with 17.4 points and 8.7 rebounds per game.
“One of the most important things with any program is experience, and having Naz back is tremendous,” Barnes Arico said. “We’ve got a solid core group and some young players as well. It’s been a good mix so far.”