Maryland women’s basketball finished 32-3 in 2016-17, capturing the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles again and earning an appearance in the Sweet 16. It was a successful season, but an upset loss to Oregon left a bad aftertaste.
The team will look drastically different in 2017-18. All-Americans Brionna Jones and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough are in the WNBA. Standout point guard Destiny Slocum, along with forward Kiah Gillespie and center Jenna Staiti, transferred from the program less than two weeks after the season. The Terps added point guard Channise Lewis in the Class of 2017, and midseason transfer Eleanna Christinaki will become eligible after the fall semester. As it stands, that’s five players gone and two coming in, and Maryland almost certainly isn’t done making moves yet.
Fans will get a glimpse at the Terps when they participate in the World University Games in Taiwan in August, and won’t have to wait long to see them face a tough test, with reigning champion South Carolina visiting on Nov. 13. Still, it will be hard to pin down where this team stands for a while.
Testudo Times sat down with head coach Brenda Frese on Tuesday to discuss the state of the program, how some of the additions and subtractions shook out, and what fans should be excited to see this fall.
Here’s our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.
Testudo Times: It’s been kind of a busy offseason. I imagine for you, this has to be one of the busier offseasons you’ve had, I guess.
Brenda Frese: I think it changes. After we went to back-to-back Final Fours, we had the luxury of so many coaches moving on to become head coaches. I feel like in our sport, as it’s ever-changing, I think where our game is headed, obviously transfers now are kind of moving into the forefront kind of like the men’s game. I saw an article from Izzo that last year [the men’s game] had 800 transfers and this year they had 900. And I think if you do your homework and watch the women’s side, this is the most amount of transfers that our game has had. It’s not going away, unfortunately. I think it’s something that is gonna be a constant, which I hate for our game and for programs out there, but at the same point, you gotta continue to work through it and do what’s best for your program.
TT: Obviously, you guys were struck with that. In general, when did people come to you and you realized your roster this upcoming season will look a little different than you planned?
Frese: I think at the conclusion of our season, we had taken some time away, we went to the Final Four and then came back and they had made those decisions. I think they were obviously wrestling with them throughout the season, and I think all three had their own unique situations, and I think the biggest thing is we handled it like we always do, as a team and as a family. They said their goodbyes and as a program, as you can see, we’ve moved forward, signing Channise Lewis. We’re super excited.
For us to be able to get a point guard and a point guard that’s eligible immediately was huge, and I think it speaks volumes to our program, to be able to find someone who has won four state titles, was MVP of the national championship Dick’s sporting event. For us to find Channise, we had recruited her the first time, and then obviously when we had signed Destiny, we didn’t need another point guard. We’re super excited that we’re gonna get a winner like that into our program. Anyone who’s come into our offseason and seen our work that the players are putting in, they’re extremely motivated and excited to be able to take on bigger roles.
TT: It seemed like a pretty quick turnaround that you guys lost one point guard, added another. You said you had recruited her before, but what was the timeline of you guys reaching back out to her and then her coming over and her signing?
Frese: We were obviously aware that there had been a coaching change made at Illinois, and so it was basically once she was able to get her release and go through her process was when we were able to connect with her and share with her our vision for her and for Maryland. I can’t say enough about what the family did, going through their process, but at the same point they also knew what a program like Maryland was and what she was stepping into and with the talent that’s gonna be around her.
TT: Going back to the transfers, you touched on that some other programs have seen players leave as well. Is there anything coaches can do to adjust or limit the number of transfers, or is it just something that’s happening in college basketball?
BF: I think if you were able to, the men would already have it fixed. The men have been going through this a lot sooner than what we’re going through. The element of playing time, people want to play sooner, they don’t want to wait. I think the element of television and social media accelerated the curve for people, I don’t think any of that is going away. We’re on television a lot, and I think when people aren’t playing there’s a lot of things that can have influence behind the scenes.
Ultimately, I wish them all the best. I think the players that we have in our program are here for the right reasons and love the family element and the balance that we’ve created. We have three pre-med majors that have come through our program, actually four now with Lori Bjork. They know they get that balance when they come to Maryland. I think ultimately, the players we get to coach are the players that fit us the best.
TT: Do you think the draft rules being the way they are, where you have to stay a certain number of years or be a certain age, do you think that factors into it at all?
Frese: I think maybe a little, but our women’s game, there’s not the money that you’re talking about for the men’s game to leave early. It’s really overseas, in terms of where they make their money, but it’s still nowhere near the men’s game. I think that’s been a factor for a few, but I just think it’s more individuals and families have their own expectation of what they feel like they should be getting out of college.
TT: With Channise [Lewis], she could step in right away. What is the plan for her for next year?
Frese: She’s a talent. She’s played at the highest level and the kid knows how to win. I think our staff does a really good job of preparing kids and putting them in position to be successful. We had two freshman start for us this year. If she’s ready, she’ll be prepared. If not, I’m really confident in this team and the work they put in. We never make those decisions ahead of time, where they’re gonna fall into, but they all know there’s a tremendous opportunity ahead for all of them in terms of what next season’s gonna look like.
I’m excited. We’ve had these elements in the past when we graduated Alyssa Thomas, and nobody knew what Shatori (Walker-Kimbrough) and Bri Jones were gonna be. They were top 50 players and they weren’t All-Americans. They put their head down and worked, and left No. 6 and No. 8 in the draft.
It’s not like we don’t have any talent on this roster. We still have a lot of McDonald’s All-Americans, we still have a lot of kids that were patiently waiting their turn to have their time. Bri Fraser has just put her head down and worked for the two years that she’s been here and she’s going to have a tremendous opportunity next year. I’m excited for those that have been really patient and worked hard in the process to be able to get their turn.
TT: You mentioned Bri Fraser, Stephanie Jones got more minutes throughout the year, Kaila Charles has a chance to take more of a scoring role, what do they need to do to take the next step?
Frese: I’m very confident they will. Like championship teams do, we had two All-Americans that shouldered the load for most of the year. The fact that Kaila Charles gave us 10 and 6 behind those two, she’s easily ready for a bigger role. Steph Jones is healthy. Brianna Fraser needs more minutes. It’s not like they can’t score and shoulder the load, they’ve just been a team player waiting for more minutes.
Shatori and Bri, as they should have, took a lot of minutes this year that they’ll now be getting their turn.
TT: Now that Shatori and Bri are gone, has it been additional motivation for the players that there’s a lot of minutes up in the air?
Frese: Oh yeah. They’re fully aware of the next step. They knew we were losing Bri and Shatori, so they’ve been preparing through the season. I’ve had conversations in terms of what those roles are going to look like going into next season, and they’re really excited about it.
TT: One thing that always interested me was, after you signed six recruits in 2016, Channise is your first one in 2017, and she committed way later than everyone else, and you’ve already moved on to 2018 kids, 2019 kids. So how did you guys sort of arrive at that as your strategy, not skipping over 2017, but I guess being more selective?
BF: I think at the time, we felt like we had a six-player class that was gonna stick and that was gonna stay committed to their class, being the No. 1-ranked class in the country. I’m a big believer in not over-recruiting numbers, so we were loyal to that. But obviously, when things change, you have to continue to take care of your program. That’s what we were able to do, being able to get Channise so late, and you’re always out in your recruiting classes with what you’re doing.
TT: At the same time, you added Eleanna [Christinaki] midseason. What’s the process for adding someone in the middle of the season while you’re also focusing on trying to win games?
Frese: It was a unique situation. Like you talked about, transfers now are not going away, so what we do as a staff is we evaluate every situation for the ones that make sense for us and whether we want to pursue and are they the right fit. We’re very meticulous in our recruiting, in terms of the right fit and who we want. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we don’t, but we want the right fit for our family. She was a great fit, and we’re excited to have her playing.
TT: With her being eligible halfway through the year, how do you approach that?
Frese: I’ll be honest, it’s a unique situation because I’ve never actually had anyone become eligible midseason. It will be an element we work through patiently, like we have day by day. I know Eleanna wants to play, like, tomorrow, so keeping her patient, but big picture, she’ll have that date, and it’s a long season when you’re playing into March and April, so for us, it’s just taking it one day at a time.
TT: I know before she came here, she was leading Florida in scoring. What should fans and people watching the team expect to see?
Frese: Fans are going to love her. She’s a high motor scoring guard, she’s big, she’s versatile. She’s gonna be playing on her Greek senior national team this summer. She’s done it at every level, when you talk about from college through the senior national team. She’s a scorer, she’s going to be able to bring in instant offense to our team. She can slash, she can shoot the three, she can get to the rim and draw fouls. Our fans are really going to love watching her play.
TT: With the World University Games this summer, how much more time do you have to add to this roster before you have to come back and start preparing?
Frese: One, I think it’s great in terms of when you talk about the bigger roles that this team is going to be faced with is that we’re going to see that unfold in the World University Games. Having that is gonna be huge for us.
Like we always do, we’ll come back and they’ll have a couple weeks off because they’ll be coming off a lot in terms of giving up the late end of their summer. We’ll have great balance, and I just think we’ll have a great advantage in terms of some of the stuff we want to put in this summer with this current team.
TT: That’s not an opportunity a lot of teams have had. You guys are the first Power 5 team to do it. How does that all come together?
Frese: We were really fortunate to be able to get that call. You talk about Purdue’s men going this summer, Kansas went the last time, and we’re only the second women’s team to ever be asked as they put this together. So it’s an honor for us to be able to take our team, our staff, to be coaching Maryland and USA basketball in Taiwan, I think there’s nothing but great things that are gonna help us as we go into next season.
They’ll be coming back into school a little jet lagged. But that’s why when we come back they’ll have a nice break. They won’t have to go through preseason conditioning, which they won’t mind, given what they’ll be coming off of.
TT: With scheduling, the last two years you guys started off with UMass Lowell. South Carolina’s a different beast. What do you think is the importance of starting off with that game and more tough nonconference games (like going to UConn)?
Frese: I think we’ll learn a lot about our team early. Defending national champions coming in, second game of the season, that’s gonna be a great game for our fans and to be able to see where we’re at. They also lost a lot, obviously they have A’ja Wilson coming back but lost two kids to the WNBA as well. So we’re excited for us to have that opportunity, and we play [George Washington] this year, and UAlbany, and a lot of teams that made the tournament. We’re taking Ieshia [Small] back home to Miami, Channise will get to go back as well, so there’s just a lot of great games that are gonna be on our schedule this year to test us early.
TT: Since you joined the Big Ten, there have been some coaching changes and programs that have declined. Is that motivation to schedule tougher opponents out of conference?
Frese: I think for us this season it was a priority because I really thought this past year was the bigger hit in terms of some changes that took place in the conference. I think you have to evaluate that just like a UConn does, in terms of what they face, though what we face is probably a lot tougher. I think you have to evaluate from year-to-year your own current schedule and roster as well as what you’re going to be facing.
TT: I guess we’ll close out on a high note. Bri and Shatori [went] 6 and 8 [in the WNBA Draft]. Seeing your players grow up, go to the draft and get picked first round, does that ever get old?
I think the coolest thing is when our players come in and they share with you their dreams and their goals and their aspirations, and then being able to see from a Bri and Shatori, two kids that were top-50 and not McDonald’s All-Americans, not Jordan Brand, they just came in and put their head down and worked. Shatori was down to Maryland and Duquesne in her process, and then to be able to see first-round draft picks, and [they] couldn’t have went to two better situations in terms of where they were picked and what team, and to be living out their dreams is what we’re in it for.
TT: What’s it been like for the current players to see that model of hard work?
Frese: They get a living example every day. I think that’s a big reason why they choose Maryland. They know they’re going to be developed across the board, from basketball to specific training, just the whole person. If they put their head down and work, good things are in store for them.