Maryland's back, better -- and has bigger expectations

11/8/2006 - Maryland Terrapins

Look around your office or classroom or whatever at everything you have to do then imagine being one year ahead of schedule.

That's kind of how it is for Maryland, don't you think?

The 2005-06 season was supposed to be a "breakout" year for the Terrapins, but who was really expecting a national championship? Wasn't Maryland supposed to make a nice run last season, then come back more experienced and prepared to win it all in 2007?

Instead, the Terps accelerated things. They came into the 2006 ACC tournament semifinals against Duke with the program having lost 14 in a row to the Blue Devils and 24 of the past 29 contests (dating back to 1994) against them.

But the Terps broke that streak to make it to the ACC title game. Maryland hadn't been that far since 1993, when it lost one of the all-time great games in ACC women's history: 106-103 in three overtimes to Virginia.

The 2006 Terps were just elementary school kids back then, so the historical significance was lost on them. It wasn't, though, for all the "old folks" who remember Maryland as the original big dog of the ACC.

North Carolina beat the Terps in the ACC final, but the fun was really just beginning for Maryland. The Terps' path through the NCAA Tournament was a bit like a twisting, narrow mountain road, the kind where you really don't want to think much about how close to the edge you were a few times.

Of course, now that it's all over, the Terps can just smile about being one Utah free throw from getting dismissed in the Elite Eight. And about how they were able to "out-Carolina" North Carolina in a rock 'em, sock 'em national semifinal. And about how at least a dozen things had to go wrong for Duke and right for Maryland in the second half of the championship game to send it to overtime, where the Terps were unbeatable last season.

So it's November, and Maryland faces that question that might be a bit irritating to answer but that everyone still wants to be asked: "OK, champs, now what?"

Coach Brenda Frese has taken the same approach Baylor's Kim Mulkey did the year before about the issue of "defending" the title. They don't like the word, don't care for the concept. As far as they are concerned, once you win the trophy, it's yours to keep and that's that. You don't have to "defend" anything.

Still, pesky media folks will keep calling the Terps the "defending" champions. The good thing is, they can win it again. It's not like Miss America or Miss USA or something like that, where someone wins, goes to a bunch of parades and mall openings, then becomes instant ancient history after a year.

I recall reading how one very funny beauty pageant winner described the end of her reign: "You're sitting on the throne, then you come down and they announce the name of the new one and you put the crown on her head. Then you're out. The reporters and photographers rush on the stage. I've seen photographers shove away the girl who just gave up her reign 30 seconds before. Nobody gives a damn about the old queen."

The Terps will be the "current queens" all season long, and they ought to enjoy it. Tennessee (1996-98) and UConn (2002-04) did -- for the most part -- in the process of winning three in a row.

Sure, in 1997, Tennessee lost 10 games and finished fifth in the SEC. There were tears shed by the Orange Brigade out of frustration that season, but ultimately the dominoes fell Tennessee's way when it really mattered.

As for UConn, the Huskies went through some "drama" in 2003 and 2004, losing in the Big East tournament both seasons, but it didn't matter when it came to the NCAA Tournament.

The only other school to win consecutive national championships in the NCAA era is Southern California, which took the 1983 and '84 titles. In all three cases, there was one player most associated with the school's achievement: Cheryl Miller at USC, Chamique Holdsclaw at Tennessee and Diana Taurasi at UConn.

It doesn't appear it will be like that at Maryland if the Terps repeat (or threepeat, for that matter). Crystal Langhorne certainly is one of the best players in the country, but she doesn't have to carry the team. Although she was the leading scorer and rebounder for the Terps last season by per-game averages, Langhorne led the way in points in just nine of the 34 games and led in rebounds 15 times.

Meaning she always had a lot of backup. In the Final Four, Laura Harper was the leading scorer against North Carolina, then shared that with Kristi Toliver and Shay Doron against Duke. And Marissa Coleman, in one of the phenomenal rebounding performances of any Final Four, pulled down 14 against both her ACC rivals in Boston.

They're all back, along with Jade Perry, Ashleigh Newman and Aurelie Noirez. The Terps add transfer guards Christie Marrone from Virginia Tech and Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood from Tennessee (at the semester break). The other new face will be freshman Emery Wallace.

The Maryland players had a summer to think about their rally against the Blue Devils, Toliver's amazing shot to force overtime, the celebration that came -- from the outside perspective, at least -- a season before possibly expected.

And now it's time for them to say the things that are expected.

Harper can sum that up: "We worked just as hard last season as in any other season, and this year we're working even harder. We know what it takes to win. We know how hard we have to work, and we're not going to let up."

The right sentiment, to be sure, but it's often so much more difficult than it sounds. If you could really measure talent empirically, Maryland has more now. The Terps have that "experience" factor that's supposed to be so valuable.

But there's so much about taking a title that can't be replicated exactly. Instead, it must be re-created, redone, relived. There's all that vague "chemistry" stuff no one really can explain but everyone knows exists. There will be a few different personalities in the mix on court. There is that new feeling everyone who faces Maryland this season will have. There is the fact that the ACC once again appears to be the country's most difficult conference. There is, heaven forbid, the possibility of injuries.

The Terps know about all these things. They've discussed them with their coach and with each other and pondered them individually. But they're about to start the process for real.

If Baylor's title in 2005 sent a message to the rest of the programs, it was that you don't have to possess "tradition" to make the ultimate climb. Maryland did, in fact, have tradition, but it sent a different message: You can make it all the way relying predominantly on freshmen and sophomores. You don't have to follow a "traditional" timetable.

Somehow, it seems kind of fitting that the team to send Baylor out of the NCAA Tournament last season was Maryland. So will there be a "new Maryland" this season?

Actually, the Terps probably hope so. Hoping they are the "new Maryland" -- a 2007 version that can follow a different script to the same ending.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.