“Battle-tested” is one word that can be used to describe the 2021-22 version of No. 13 Maryland women’s basketball. The Terps (21-8, 13-4 Big Ten) only have elimination games ahead of them, and all previous blemishes can be forgotten with a historic run.
There are certainly mixed feelings surrounding head coach Brenda Frese’s ballclub heading into March Madness. Is this the team that was ranked preseason No. 4 and was one of the favorites to win the national title? Or will this group be remembered as the one who was haunted by adversity – getting off to its worst 18-game start in 18 seasons – and never reached its full potential?
Of course, this is what the Big Dance is for. Maryland will have an opportunity to silence its doubters en route to completing its mission of winning a national title. But there are two sides to March, and the lonely one can prevail with just one bad performance.
Despite the losses, the injuries and all the other hardships dealt to the Terps, they find themselves in a favorable position ahead of the tournament. Maryland was a projected No. 3-seed in the selection committee’s reveal ahead of its Big Ten tournament quarterfinal loss to Indiana. A defeat to a potent conference foe should not be enough to knock the Terps from a top-16 overall seed – ESPN’s Charlie Creme still projects them as a No. 4 seed – and a host site for the first two rounds of the national tournament.
Misfortunes aside, Maryland played one of the nation’s toughest schedules – the sixth-most difficult, per the team’s Twitter account on Monday – this season. Part of that was due to a gauntlet of a non-conference schedule that featured each of the top three teams and the No. 7 team in the NET. A lot of it, though, can be allocated to the toughest Big Ten since Maryland joined the conference, and maybe the most rigorous league it has been a part of in over a decade.
“I would probably liken it back to 2006 when we won the national championship,” Frese said on a Big Ten Network set back on Oct. 7. “When we had both North Carolina and Duke in the Final Four that we played against. I mean, that’s where I liken our conference.”
As it turned out, Frese’s foretelling from five months ago wasn’t far off.
The 2005-06 ACC earned seven bids, highlighted by No. 1-seed North Carolina, No. 1-seed Duke and No. 2-seed Maryland. In addition, No. 8-seed Boston College made the Sweet 16, while No. 6-seed Florida State and No. 7-seed Virginia Tech also won a game each.
In an era where teams only played 14 conference games, the Tar Heels went 13-1 to win the conference; the Terps and the Blue Devils tied for second place with a 12-2 record. Against those two teams, the Terps held a 4-3 record. Those contests included a national championship victory over Duke, a Final Four win over UNC and an ACC Tournament final loss to UNC.
This year’s Big Ten is projected to earn six bids, with Iowa, Michigan, Indiana and Maryland all in line to be above the 16-team cut line, per ESPN. In the same bracket, Ohio State and Nebraska are slated as six-seeds, with Northwestern as the first team out of the field.
Though the conference did not possess the staying power among the top spots nationally like the 2005-06 ACC did, it was just as, if not more, crowded within. Ohio State and Iowa were co-champions at 14-4 with Michigan and Maryland tying for third-place at 13-4. Indiana, the Big Ten tournament runner-up, was right there at 11-5 in conference play. Maryland went 3-5 against those four teams this season.
Frese reaffirmed the conference’s strength following Maryland’s conference tournament loss to Indiana, its first-ever loss in its Big Ten tournament opener.
“No question,” said Frese in her March 4 postgame presser. “I mean, you just look at the seeding, the standings, and the battles of the top half of the league. So everyone’s battle-tested, and it does, I think it’s exciting for the NCAA Tournament. You saw last year, and I expect that we’ll all make deep runs in the NCAA Tournament.”
Frese’s sentiment is undoubtedly supported by how the Big Ten played out. Other coaches agree, as well.
“I’m so excited that… this is a special year for the Big Ten,” said Indiana head coach Teri Moren in her March 4 postgame presser. “In terms of the talent level, the teams that are obviously in the top-25, the teams that hopefully will have the opportunity to host. I really feel like there’s a team here in the Big Ten, and I don’t know who it is, that could easily win a Final Four.”
Ultimately, Maryland hopes that the rough waters of the Big Ten allow it to sail smoothly into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. From there, the Terps can separate themselves from a really good team to an elite one.
“Maryland has always been the bar,” Moren said. “They’ve always been the bar, and I think that’s for everybody in this league. And if they tell you they’re not, then I think they’re lying. And Brenda, she’s a Hall of Famer at some point. She’s won almost 80% of her games as a coach over there on the sidelines, and year in and year out she recruits at a high level and has terrific players in her program, and they just continue to raise the bar for the rest of us.”
Make no mistake about it, Maryland’s long-term dominance is the reason why this conference has become so strong. For seven seasons, its presence marked a stranglehold on the Big Ten. In 2022, an arms race played out.
If Maryland can recapture some of its 2006 magic, its Big Ten battles could easily be the reason why.