When Maryland joined the Big Ten, it was not only switching to a conference with different geographic footprint, but one with different levels of competition than the ACC. This left sports like football, women’s volleyball and wrestling hoping to catch up, while it left others like women’s basketball, men’s soccer and field hockey wondering if they could stay relevant in a conference where the competition wasn’t as strong.
Four years in, it’s hard to say that joining the Big Ten has had a big impact on the latter three so far. But because this is a retrospective, let’s take a look anyway.
All three teams were leaving behind great competition.
Men’s soccer and field hockey were leaving the best conference in the country. From 2005-13, four different ACC men’s soccer teams won the national championship. When the Terps left the ACC, the conference had sent at least one team to the College Cup since 2001, a streak that is still intact today. The same can’t be said for the Big Ten, where Indiana has been the only team from the conference to make the College Cup since 1995.
For as good as ACC men’s soccer is, ACC field hockey is even better. The conference has sent at leat one team to the Final Four since 1989, and sent a team to the national championship game for 18 straight seasons from 1999 to 2016.
The Terps were part of that dominance, battling three North Carolina schools for ACC supremacy. North Carolina has remained a national power for over 30 years under Karen Shelton. Wake Forest emerged as a premier program in the early 2000s, winning three straight national titles. Although Duke hasn’t won a national title, it’s been in the running for more than a decade, with four title game appearances since 2002. In 2005-11, the peak of Maryland field hockey’s dominance, it beat all three in a run of five national titles in seven years. Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State have all had periods of success, but none have had the sustained levels of success of top ACC teams.
While ACC women’s basketball was not as dominant as men’s soccer or field hockey, but by the time Maryland departed, it was starting to push ahead of the Big Ten. In the four years before the Terps left, both leagues were relatively even in regards to NCAA Tournament selection, with the Big Ten getting 23 teams in and the ACC getting 22. But that final year, the ACC added Notre Dame and Syracuse to the conference, and Louisville joined the following year. All three have reached the Final Four since.
The Big Ten had at least five teams make the NCAA Tournament in each of those four years, but the conference failed to make an impact nationally. Penn State, Ohio State and Nebraska combined for four Sweet Sixteen appearances over that span, and all three failed to advance to the Elite Eight. Before Maryland made the Final Four in its first year in the conference, no Big Ten team had advanced that far since Michigan State fell to Baylor in the 2005 national championship.
The results so far have been mixed.
All three teams have been great at winning conference championships. Field hockey has won four Big Ten regular season and conference tournament titles, men’s soccer has won five, and women’s basketball has won six. Women’s basketball only lost to one team (Ohio State) in its first 65 games across the regular season and conference tournament.
That’s an impressive stretch, but all three teams have bigger goals than winning a conference championship. In each sport, you come to College Park to win a national title. Judging by those standards, each team has had postseason letdowns the past four years.
In three out of the last four years, Sasho Cirovski has seen his team’s season end at Ludwig Field. In 2014, UMBC stunned the No. 4-seeded Terps in the second round on its way to a Final Four appearance. It was Maryland’s earliest NCAA Tournament exit since 2001. After falling to Clemson in the Elite Eight in 2015, Providence scored four straight goals to stun No. 1 and undefeated Maryland, 5-4, in another second round matchup. This past year, the Terps slumped to an 0-5-1 finish and fell to Albany in penalty kicks in the first round. It was the Terps’ earliest postseason exit since 1999, and last year’s senior class was the first not to play in the College Cup semifinals since 1997.
Before advancing to the national championship game last fall, field hockey had experienced similar disappointment. Maryland was the No. 2 seed in both the 2014 and 2016 NCAA Tournament, winning its first-round game both years before falling in the quarterfinals. Sandwiched in between was a first-round loss to Princeton in 2015, which was the Terps’ earliest exit from the postseason since 1990. If Maryland hadn’t made a run last year, it would’ve been the first senior class to play a full four years under Missy Meharg to miss the Final Four.
Since making its second straight Final Four, women’s basketball has also had short postseason appearances. In both the 2016 and 2017 NCAA Tournament, Maryland was sent home by higher-seeded teams. Washington upset the Terps at home in the second round in 2016 and Oregon sent the Terps packing in the 2017 Sweet 16 in Bridgeport. Both teams were led by program greats Kelsey Plum and Sabrina Ionescu, respectively, but the Terps were still expected to win both games. Even with lowered expectations due to roster turnover this past season, Maryland still fell at NC State in the second round.
The future still looks good.
Despite somewhat disappointing results since joining the conference, it’s not time to panic yet for any of the three teams.
For men’s soccer and field hockey, the disappointment was partially because both teams have set such high standards. Prior to joining the Big Ten, men’s soccer had advanced to seven College Cups semifinals and won two national championships in the previous 12 years, while field hockey had advanced to 13 Final Fours and won six national championships in the previous 15 seasons. That level of success is incredibly hard to sustain over time.
It’s also hurt all three that the Big Ten does not have the same depth of the ACC in these sports, and the addition of Syracuse, Notre Dame and Louisville has bolstered that depth. This can help performance on the field and recruiting, as high school athletes want to play for the best teams and compete against the best. Right now, the ACC is far ahead of the Big Ten in achieving that goal in these three sports.
The only sport of the three where there’s legitimate reason to be concerned is men’s soccer. The Terps went into a tailspin to last year, and two of their top players last season, Eryk Williamson and Gordon Wild, left for the pros with eligibility remaining. This year’s team was unranked in the preseason NSCAA poll, and doesn’t have the talent of previous squads. However, Cirovski is a fantastic coach, and will definitely want to prove that Maryland hasn’t lost a step on the national stage.
Field hockey would be in a similar position if it didn’t turn a 6-5 midseason record into a national championship appearance. Instead, a team comprised of mostly underclassmen returns hungry for another shot at a title. Women’s basketball returns its top three scorers and adds a top-five recruiting class and should be more relevant nationally this year. Frese has put together another excellent class for 2019, so the program should continue to be successful for years to come.
Even in lesser conferences, Cirovski, Meharg and Frese all have track records of winning at the highest level. Unless they show otherwise, that should remain the expectation going forward.