It has become something of a tradition for fans of the Maryland women's basketball team to join the team on a mid March Monday evening to watch the NCAA Tournament Selection Show. In past years the assembly has typically met in Heritage Hall overlooking the Xfinity Center floor and has consisted of a small group of 50 or 75 supporters all or most of whom are members of Maryland's official support group - the Rebounders.
March 16, 2015 was a bit different than those past gatherings. The crowd was much larger - upwards of 250 people - and had moved to the Xfinity Center floor where they would watch the telecast on the video board that had been installed in the arena at the beginning of the season.
For the first time in several years, ESPN sent a crew to cover festivities. Maryland's media department made certain that both Big Ten Trophies were prominently displayed and were busy orchestrating raucous cheers that the network could use in cutaways.
The announcements began. First, the Albany region and the number one overall seed, UConn. The announcement finished with the match-up between the region's number two seed, Kentucky and 15th seeded Tennessee State. Next up, Oklahoma City beginning with top seeded Notre Dame and ending with the second seed - Baylor. Greensboro was the third announced region. The number one seed there would be South Carolina and Florida State would claim the number two seed.
Thus far, no surprises and no real suspense. As most in the crowd expected, the Terrapins would be traveling west to play in Spokane. The question hanging in the air was whether Maryland would occupy the top line or would Tennessee supplant them as the region's number one seed. The announcement came. The crowd erupted. And Maryland's sophomore center Brionna Jones articulated her feelings, "I was really excited because I didn't think we'd beat out Tennessee at the end there. So I think just to be a number one seed shows how much we've done this year."
Of the number one seed, Brenda Frese, Jones' coach, noted, as she has on other recent occasions, "I think it shows that we had a really consistent season, especially when you go undefeated and win your conference tournament. At this point however, none of that matters because you just have to be able to come out and play you best basketball. Regardless, it's nice to have Maryland basketball be recognized as a number one seed."
Jones' teammate and Maryland's lone senior Laurin Mincy talked about her team's approach, "It's very special that we got a one seed. But we're not going to look at the number beside our name, we're going to come into every game being hungry and humble. We've been in this position last year, we got to the final four. But we want to extend that, we want to do better than we did last year."
Number one with a bullseye
Prior to the start of the season, the Big Ten coaches and media chose the Terrapins as the favorite to win the conference championship. That put the first target on Maryland's back. On November 29th and December third, the Terps lost back to back games to Washington State and Notre Dame. They haven't lost since.
As their undefeated march through the Big Ten progressed, the metaphorical target grew larger. It grew larger still as they continued their streak through the conference tournament on their way to claiming both the Conference and Conference Tournament Championships. Do the players think that experience will help them as they enter phase three of the season?
Mincy said, "I'm sure being the number one seed, everyone's going to want to come in and beat you. But, we've been a target the whole season. In the Big Ten, we were the team to beat. We're looking for everyone's best punch. Everyone's going to play their best in March, and we're going to play our best too."
Brown added, "Any number one seed is going to have a huge target on their back. We had a target on our back all conference year. Being number one the whole season. I think is getting us ready. Some people think you'll get more pressure because you have a number one next to your name. At the end of the day those numbers mean nothing. You have to play your best.You have to play hard. You can't overlook anybody."
And Jones shared her perspective, "I think it just gives us experience. Going into all those schools and having a target on our back and being undefeated and playing with that pressure everyday, I think that is going to help us in the tournament . Especially with being a number one seed."
Home court advantage
For the fifth consecutive year, Maryland will begin their NCAA Tournament run on their home court. The Terps are 12-2 in NCAA Tournament games played in the Xfinity Center. Both losses came in the second round. In 2005, Maryland lost to Ohio State after defeating Green Bay in the opening round and most recently, the Terps lost in 2011 to Georgetown.
Still, the players and their coach know that they have a real advantage playing at home. In addition to their 12-2 NCAA mark, the Terps have won 33 of their last 34 home games that includes a 21 game streak stretching back to February 2014.
Frese acknowledged the importance of the home crowd, "It means a lot. First of all, it means that our administration supports us. Then, to have the best fans in the country come out and support this team. You hope that it gives you a home court advantage come tournament time but it really means a lot to have our sixth man, our fans, in the building as we play at home."
Brown was even more emphatic attributing credit for last season's win over Texas in part to the home court, "I remember last year we had a tough game with Texas and I feel like we wouldn't have won that game if we hadn't had the crowd behind us. It's definitely an advantage and I think that's something that teams work hard to get is the home court."
For Mincy, the feeling is more emotional, "Obviously it's really special and personal for me. It will be my last games actually playing in this building. I'm very humbled and appreciative for that moment."
Well what do you know?
Maryland's first round opponent will be the New Mexico State Aggies of the Western Athletic Conference (WAC). Testudo Times will have a detailed preview later in the week. For now, here's what Coach Frese had to say about facing the Aggies, "I know they're in my sister's conference. They play in the WAC. So, for whatever that means, maybe I'll get a good scouting report from my sister at UMKC. Ironically, I had their game on when they were on television I watched maybe five or ten minutes of it. Any team at this point is a great team."
Wrapping it up - The storylines
This year's number one seed makes the third time Maryland has reached that level under Frese. Neither ended particularly happily for the Terps. The first came two years after Maryland won the National Championship in the 2007-08 season. There was some controversy over whether Stanford or Maryland merited the final number one seed that year. The Terps had lost in the ACC Tournament semifinal to Duke while Stanford entered the tournament having won 18 straight games. The Selection Committee put the Terps on the top line and sent them to the Spokane Region where they eventually lost to second seeded Stanford 98-87 in the regional final and came up one win shy of reaching the Final Four.
Less controversy surrounded the Terps the following season when they again earned a number one seed. In this instance, the committee kept Maryland close to home sending them to play in the Raleigh Region. That season's intrigue came when the Terrapins found themselves matched against the Louisville Cardinals coached by former Maryland assistant Jeff Walz. The Cardinals ended the game on the long end of a 77-60 final and once again the Terps fell one game short of their Final Four aspirations.
So, what of 2015? Much potential intrigue awaits. First, should the Terps win their first round game over New Mexico State, they will face either an undefeated Princeton Tigers squad or Green Bay - a program they defeated in the first round of the 2005 Tournament.
And if they reach the Sweet Sixteen and make the trek out west? Well, they face the possibility of a regional semifinal game with none other than the Duke Blue Devils. Of course Duke will have to get past Albany and either Mississippi State or Tulane before that happens.
The number two seed in the region is, of course, Tennessee. Although the Volunteers finished the season 27-5 and lost two of their final six games, they played the nation's toughest schedule and may still feel that they deserved to hold on to that final number one seed. And, of course, they have some additional motivation given that Maryland knocked them off their top seeded perch last year on the Terps run to the Final Four.
Regarding making the trip west, Frese said, "Basketball is basketball. You shouldn't over think it in terms of the distance and the time change because at the end of the day it's just stepping out and playing the best basketball you can for 40 minutes."
As for her approach, perhaps Maryland's sophomore floor general Lexie Brown summed it up best, "Don't make games bigger than they are. At the end of the day it's just a game. Some might be a little more important than others but you can't freak out in high pressure, high intensity moments."