Maryland freshman Shakira Austin says she isn't where she wants to be yet. And you have to stifle a smile when she says it.
"I'm still trying find my game and figure out what type of player I am," Austin said. "Now I feel like I'm mostly using my energy and athleticism, but I'm still searching."
She's 18 and not far into her college career. She has already been named Big Ten Freshman of the Week five times. She's averaging 9.1 points and leads Maryland with 11.3 rebounds per game (third in the Big Ten) and 48 blocked shots (second in the league). She's doing OK.
But Austin's eagerness to get things right is indicative of the Terrapins' mindset. Last season was challenging with graduation losses and injuries. But led by all-Big Ten first-teamer Kaila Charles, Maryland went 26-8, made the Big Ten tournament final and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Now Charles, a 6-foot-1 guard, and fellow junior starters Stephanie Jones (a 6-2 forward) and Blair Watson (a 6-foot guard back after an ACL injury cut short last season), have more help, including from a pair of standout freshmen: Austin, a 6-5 forward, and 5-11 guard Taylor Mikesell.
The Terps were unbeaten in nonconference play, but knew they hadn't been sternly tested. That came in their second Big Ten game, a 73-65 home loss to Rutgers on Dec. 31. It wasn't the most fun New Year's Eve for the Terps, but it propelled them into 2019 with a renewed sense of mission.
"We had spent a lot of time talking about how we were going to get every team's best shot, and I felt like we did get that from Rutgers," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. "It was a critical lesson that we had to learn through a loss, unfortunately, about what it takes every time we step on the court."
Since then, the Terps have won three in a row -- including Frese's 500th career victory on Jan. 8 at Nebraska -- as they head into Thursday's game at No. 17 Michigan State. Maryland hosts Penn State on Sunday (EPN2, 2 p.m. ET).
It has already been a topsy-turvy Big Ten season even just midway through January. Minnesota, which started the season 12-0, has stumbled. The Gophers are 1-4 in league play, and are among nine of the Big Ten's 14 teams that are below .500 in conference play. Michigan State had the league's marquee nonconference victory in beating Oregon, but the Spartans are 2-3 in the Big Ten.
Maryland (15-1, 4-1) has been the conference's best team since joining the league from the ACC in the 2014-15 season. The Terps went 61-7 in conference play and won three league tournament titles in their first four Big Ten seasons.
"I wanted to be a part of something like that," Mikesell said of why she chose Maryland.
She has what Frese calls an "old-school" mentality. The Massillon, Ohio, native commits to making 1,000 shots a day, a routine she started in high school. It takes her about an hour and 15 minutes, and she doesn't listen to any music while doing it.
"I love to hear the sound of the net when the ball goes through," Mikesell said. "I'm not overly tall or overly quick, but I can control what I can control. And that's been my shot."
Mikesell, who has started every game, is averaging 14.9 points while shooting 44 percent from the field and 42 percent (50 of 119) from behind the arc; she leads the Big Ten in 3-pointers made.
"What separates her is there's nobody that works harder on our team," Frese said. "I was down on the court this morning at 8:30, and she was already there. She probably got there an hour before me. The results speak for themselves; there's a reason she's having the success she is."
Austin was the No. 3 overall recruit in the class of 2018, as rated by espnW HoopGurlz. She's from Fredericksburg, Virginia, but spent her high school senior season at Riverdale Baptist in Maryland. The chance to stay close to home was part of what drew her to the Terps, but so was Frese's message that she could be a major component for Maryland. Austin, who has started six games, hopes to pattern herself after the versatility of 6-5 WNBA star Elena Delle Donne.
"The sky is the limit with Shakira; you see all the tools," Frese said. "You have to allow the ebbs and flows that will take place, especially for a freshman big. She had a lot of early success in the nonconference. And then in conference play, you get matched with length and physicality. That has been an adjustment for her, but one she's working through."
"I love to hear the sound of the net when the ball goes through. I'm not overly tall or overly quick, but I can control what I can control. And that's been my shot." Terps freshman Taylor Mikesell, who insists on making 1,000 shots a day
The freshmen have been welcomed by the veteran players. Jones -- whose older sister, former Terp Brionna Jones, is with the Connecticut Sun -- is having her best season yet, averaging 13.3 points and 6.3 rebounds while shooting 61.1 percent from the field (second in the Big Ten to Iowa's Megan Gustafson). Watson, whom the Terps missed last year when she was injured in practice after playing 17 games, is averaging 8.6 points and 2.5 assists.
Charles, in particular, had a heavy load last season (17.9 PPG, 8.1 RPG). She's still one of the Big Ten's best players, averaging 16.6 points and 6.2 rebounds, and she's happy to have additional options. Senior forward Brianna Fraser and sophomore guard Channise Lewis have contributed as well.
"I love the fact that this year, we have more pieces," Charles said. "Everybody can have a good game, and that's great because we need an overall team to be successful. I like the fact that I have more of a leadership role and I can help my team, especially the young ones like Taylor and Shakira."