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With the 2017-18 season over, Maryland women’s basketball turns toward its bright future

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A look at the bright future ahead for Brenda Frese’s team.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Ohio State vs Maryland Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2017-18 women’s basketball season officially in the books, it’s time to look forward to next season. Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale hit the two biggest shots of her career to send her team to and win the national championship, capping the one of the best weekends in women’s basketball history.

This means that teams can now turn their focus towards getting to the 2019 Final Four in Tampa. I wrapped up the 2017-18 season last week, and wanted to delve into next season in the same piece, but I can’t help myself and wrote too much. Below, you’ll find my takes on the incoming recruiting class, key questions for next year, as well as reasonable expectations for the Terps.

Recruiting

Brenda Frese is an excellent recruiter, and has another batch of highly-ranked prospects coming to College Park in the fall.

Shakira Austin is the crown jewel of the class, and is currently the No. 3 recruit in the Class of 2018 according to ESPN’s HoopGurlz rankings. She played in the McDonald’s All-American game and showed she can do more than a traditional post player. Austin can attack off the bounce, block shots, run the floor in transition, and hit the midrange jumper. At 6’5, Maryland has never had a player as tall with those types of skills. Those skills translate well to the Terps’ philosophy and the college game, and if she makes quick adjustments to the college level, could start from Day 1.

Joining Austin are Taylor Mikesell and Olivia Owens, who came in at No. 32 and No. 33 respectively in ESPN’s HoopGurlz rankings. Mikesell stands 5’9 and is the No. 9 point guard in the class of 2018, but also looks to be a lights-out three-point shooter. This makes her a versatile guard who can run the point and play off the ball, and she could be a solid rotation player as a freshman. Maryland does not have a true backup point guard on the roster, so Mikesell has a chance to make an immediate impact by giving Channise Lewis rest when she needs it.

Owens is a 6’4 post player, and has been rising up the recruiting rankings. She was just inside the top 60 on ESPN last summer, but jumped up to No. 33 when the rankings were updated in the fall. She should give Maryland much-needed depth down low, and could be a spark off the bench if the Terps need scoring or get in foul trouble. But with Stephanie Jones, Brianna Fraser and Austin most likely ahead of her on the depth chart, it’s harder to see Owens getting a ton of minutes immediately.

Key questions for next season

1. When will Blair Watson return?

Maryland seemed to be hitting its stride when the sophomore guard tore her ACL in practice on Jan. 10. The Terps were on a 13-game winning streak and looked to be maturing on both ends of the floor. They were still a solid team after the injury, but never the same.

Maryland didn’t get as many looks from the perimeter without Watson, and the Terps’ three-point shooting sometimes disappeared when Kristen Confroy wasn’t having a good night. Teams could pack it in knowing they cut off the main threat from deep and dare Kaila Charles and Ieshia Small to take midrange jumpers, which could be a hit or miss proposition. Watson was also missed on the defensive end, as she was leading the team in steals per game at the time of her injury and her length gave opposing teams problems.

Watson had surgery in early February, and the average layoff for an ACL tear is 6-9 months. This means that if Watson has a quick recovery, she could be back in time for the start of the season. A more realistic timeline would be that she misses some of the non-conference slate and is back for Big Ten play.

2. Who steps up as another perimeter threat?

If Watson is not ready to go at the start of the season, Maryland will be without a proven putside shooter. Channise Lewis and Eleanna Christinaki showed flashes of an outside game, but never garnered enough respect as on outside threat. Many of Lewis’ threes came on wide open looks, and opponents were daring Christinaki to shoot threes by the end of the season. Kaila Charles hit a few threes as well, though they were more a flash in the pan than a consistent part of her game.

Mikesell was a great shooter in high school, but that doesn’t mean she’ll be the same as a freshman in college. Every player adjusts to the college game differently, and being a team’s main perimeter threat puts a lot of pressure on someone adjusting to the game on the fly.

3. How will Maryland use Shakira Austin?

As I said earlier, Maryland hasn’t had a player with the combination of size and skills of Austin in Brenda Frese’s time in College Park. She has loads of potential, and a chance to be a dominant force in women’s college basketball by the time she graduates.

Frese hasn’t been afraid to play freshmen right away, as Lewis and Destiny Slocum played major minutes at point guard in their rookie seasons and Charles started every game in her first year on campus. Maryland has two solid post players returning in Stephanie Jones and Brianna Fraser, both of whom will probably start the year ahead of Austin in the rotation. However, Austin may be too talented to come off the bench and could start right away.

4. Can Maryland’s current core take the next step?

While most of last year’s rotation had to take on a bigger role, each of those players can improve on areas of their game. Charles had a great season, but could work to continue to solidify her midrange game as well as add a three-point shot that could make her almost impossible to guard. Jones and Fraser were solid in the post, but Jones could work on extending her game to the foul line and Fraser needs to be more consistent. Christinaki can score on multiple levels, but needs to be more patient on offense and not force her shot in an attempt to get into the flow of the game. Lewis did what was asked of her as a freshman, but the team would be that much better if she expanded her offensive game.

Outlook

After finishing second in the Big Ten in a “down” year, Maryland should be the favorites to win the conference next season. Iowa, who has a beast in the post in Megan Gustafson and point guard Tania Davis returning from a knee injury; Minnesota, who loses Carlie Wagner but returns four of its top five scorers; and Nebraska, who plays scrappy and with a ton of grit to make up for its lack of starpower, will probably be the Terps’ main competitors for the Big Ten title. Ohio State, who has been Maryland’s biggest rival since joining the conference, will take a big step back after losing more than 80 percent of its scoring.

On the national stage, Maryland could be a top-10 team but not one of the favorites to win the national championship. The Terps could still make a deep tournament run, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they ended up in Tampa for the Final Four a year from now. No matter what happens, next year should still be an exciting one in College Park, with the chance for an even better season in 2019-20.