Terps' season hinges on many 'ifs'

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Like a lot of us facing a move, Maryland couldn't bring everything it wanted to a new home in the Big Ten. In the case of the women's basketball program, it wasn't a matter of running out of cardboard boxes or a shortage of space in the back of the rental truck. All-American Alyssa Thomas simply didn't have any eligibility left.

Now the Terrapins hope that moving on without Thomas won't mean they fit in a little too well in their new surroundings.

In its ACC import, picked by coaches as the preseason favorite to win the league, the Big Ten has for the first time in nearly a decade a team coming off an appearance in the Final Four, not to mention a program that won a national championship this century, i.e., within the conscious memory of today's players and tomorrow's recruits.

Those are uncharted waters in a league that has become basketball's Bermuda Triangle.

Maryland's hope is that it takes enough talent in to find its way back out come March.

It has been a lean decade for the Big Ten, which has floundered nationally since Michigan State played for a national championship in 2005. In its media guide this season, the conference dubiously counts past NCAA tournament wins accumulated by new arrivals Maryland and Rutgers in its year-to-year totals. By that creative accounting, Big Ten teams have won 78 NCAA tournament games in the past nine seasons. Maryland and Rutgers accounted for 36 of those wins. Teams that were actually members of the Big Ten at the time the games were played totaled just 42 tournament wins.

Green Bay, Gonzaga and Marist had almost half the latter total just among themselves over the same span.

Only twice during those nine seasons did a team representing the Big Ten win so much as a Sweet 16 game.

The full litany of reasons for such futility merits a study of its own, but it hasn't helped that a league based in such a fertile agricultural region has proved fallow recruiting ground. Thomas came from the fringes of conference territory. Skylar Diggins, Jewell Loyd and Candace Parker grew up in Big Ten country, but the latter left for Tennessee while Diggins and Loyd went to Notre Dame. UConn poached Kelly Faris. Stanford picked off a Toni Kokenis here and a Mikaela Ruef there. But look at the list of truly defining talents during the past decade -- Seimone Augustus, Brittney Griner, Ivory Latta, Angel McCoughtry, Maya Moore, Chiney and Nneka Ogwumike, Courtney Paris, and on and on -- and practically none of them came out of the Big Ten's backyard.

The larger conversation extends to institutional commitment, coaching acumen, injuries and other factors, but talent is an unavoidable necessity in competing for championships. As good as Jantel Lavender, Maggie Lucas, Jordan Hooper and others were at times, the Big Ten hasn't had a singular talent like Thomas in a long time.

Now Maryland doesn't, either.

What it has are a lot of possibilities, as sophomore point guard Lexie Brown highlighted when she talked about taking the next step in her own development without the security blanket of Thomas.

"I feel like there are going to be more situations where I'm going to have to make something happen," Brown said. "Sometimes the [shot] clock would be at 10 seconds and you'd be like, 'Give the ball to Alyssa.' We won't be able to do that this season. I'll have to be more aware of who is doing what on the court. I might be hot one game, Shatori [Walker-Kimbrough] might be hot one game, [Laurin] Mincy might be hot one game.

"So I think I have to be more aware of where the ball needs to be, rather than just giving it to one person."

"I'm most proud of her growth. To see her this year on the court compared to last year, it's a comfortable confidence. She knows she belongs. It's her team." Maryland coach Brenda Frese

If Walker-Kimbrough plays the way she played early in her freshman season, if Brionna Jones builds on the post presence she displayed late in her freshman season, if Brene Moseley is back to full strength, if a talented freshman class with a worrisome injury history stays healthy and contributes -- if a lot of things happen, Maryland has the means to win games without Thomas. It promises to be one of those seasons, one in which there are many ways for it to go right. Or for it to go wrong.

It would go a long way toward the former if Brown takes the next step toward stardom and Mincy simply takes a season's worth of steps.

Like Notre Dame's Lindsay Allen and Baylor's Niya Johnson, Brown was a young point guard for a team that wanted the ball in the hands of a superstar as often as possible a season ago. Now she is the leading returning scorer.

"I'm not sure how many freshmen point guards could do that," Frese said of balancing a position like point guard with a lack of seniority. "She really wasn't, obviously, always comfortable in terms of how she had to lead at that position with five seniors. I'm most proud of her growth. To see her this year on the court compared to last year, it's a comfortable confidence. She knows she belongs. It's her team, so to speak. She's obviously very naturally gifted and knows how to play the game, but I think the biggest thing has been her confidence and just her maturation process."

Brown still thinks of herself as a playmaker, the one who derives her greatest pleasure from setting up others. But there were more than enough moments, like when she scored 31 points at Syracuse or 13 second-half points in the regional final at Louisville, to suggest that she is capable of putting up points in bunches and in big moments.

She spent the offseason doing exactly what opposing coaches were doing, watching tape to realize she didn't use the left side of the court enough and relied too much on her favorite shot, the step-back jumper. When assistant coach David Adkins, whose skill development work with Thomas was instrumental, left for the NBA's Washington Wizards, Maryland replaced him with Shay Robinson, whose history working with Brown goes back to her youth in the Orlando area.

Now it's Robinson and Brown, a morning person only when it comes to basketball, who are on the court before most students even face the dilemma of whether to wake up for that first class of the day. It's just as it was when she was a kid and her teammates would scatter to the snack bar or their phones after games and she would sit and watch the next game and pick Robinson's brain about why teams did what they did. Some people play basketball; some people live it.

"She's that point guard that can do it all," Mincy said. "She can find you when you're open, and she can hit big shots when she needs to."

That Mincy is around at all this season is inadvertently the doing of the Big Ten. When Maryland played Nebraska in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge two seasons ago, Mincy already had 16 points when she suffered a torn ACL with more than 15 minutes remaining in the game. It was the second ACL tear in four years for someone who ranked as one of the 25 best recruits in her high school class, only a few spots behind Thomas, and once outscored Diggins 35-31 in a high school game between Newark's University High School and South Bend's Washington High School.

Five years on, that promise has run headlong into its share of obstacles. Her freshman season was slow to get going because of the knee injury in high school. Her junior season was wiped out by the second injury. Mincy's return from that injury last season was further delayed by a second procedure to remove scar tissue. When she did make it back, there was still something missing, a step on defense or the bounce on rebounds.

"I've dealt with my issues as far as injuries, coming back and trying to bounce back with my confidence," Mincy said. "Trying to convince myself that I am supposed to be here. Maryland recruited me to come here. Just coming back off my injury last year, I struggled with confidence issues, just getting my knee back right and things like that."

She didn't put up eye-catching numbers in the postseason run a season ago, but she felt and looked more like her old self. Most importantly, she played the kind of minutes she used to play. The coaches told her all season to be patient, that she would eventually feel that way again, but actually experiencing it in a postseason setting, rather than the fool's gold of summer workouts, built her confidence. At her best, she is a shooter, defender and rebounder who does everything smoothly. Maryland needs her best.

"You just want it all to come together for her senior year," Frese said. "I see nobody is talking about her because they haven't been able to see the real Laurin Mincy. You just hope she gets to have all of that longevity and show what she can do this senior year."

Maryland players and coaches talk about wanting to push the tempo beyond what Big Ten teams like (Iowa might beg to differ), but this is in some ways a very Big Ten team. Without Thomas, and Brown's breakout potential aside, it is a collection of very good players hoping that adds up to greatness. The difference is this group, minus the freshmen, has been there. They went to Louisville, beat Tennessee and then beat the No. 1 seed on its court in the most challenging environment a team will ever experience in the NCAA tournament. They went to the Final Four.

"We had a lot of fun," Brown said. "Our coaches were like, 'Can you act like you've been here before?' But we were like, 'We haven't.'

"We took in everything. We took posters off the wall, we took our nametags. We had a lot of fun. But you have teams up there like UConn, Notre Dame and Stanford who obviously have a lot of experience being at a Final Four. It really helps to have a year under your belt. That atmosphere in the gym is something I've never experienced before. It was a lot of fun. But if we were to get back, I think the outcome would be way different."

Getting there at all would be a welcome change for the Big Ten.