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Maryland women's basketball preview: Terps clash with Connecticut

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The Terps face the toughest test of anybody's season.

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

In case you weren't aware by now, Connecticut ended Maryland's 2014-15 season this past April. The squads met in the Women's Final Four, and UConn thwarted the Terps, 81-58. Two nights later, the Huskies won their third consecutive championship.

And because women's college basketball is a cruel world for cruel people, most of that team's core returned this year. The only departures were those of guard Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and center Kiah Stokes. Four starters, including two-time Player of the Year Breanna Stewart, are back.

I'm not here to gush about how dominant the Huskies have been in their nine games this year, but simply giving you the facts isn't far off. The team is 9-0 and has won each game by double digits. The Huskies opened the season with a true road game against then-No. 6 Ohio State; they won that game by 44 points. They've beaten three more ranked teams since: Notre Dame by 10, DePaul by 16 and Florida State by 24. The other five games have been 40-point blowouts or worse.

So far, 448 votes have been cast in seven weeks across the two major polls. UConn has received 447 first-place votes. The Huskies received a single second-place vote in Week 2, because they hadn't yet played a game and South Carolina had won two.

That won't be the case anymore if Maryland can knock them off in the Maggie Dixon Classic. The two top-five teams will take the floor Monday night at Madison Square Garden. The game tips off at 8:30 and can be seen on ESPN2 or WatchESPN.

No. 1 Connecticut (9-0)

The coach

Geno Auriemma. If UConn is the First Order, this man is Snoke. He's won 10 national titles, reached 16 Final Fours and coached 5 perfect teams. These are all women's college basketball records, as is his career winning percentage of .873. In his 31st season in Storrs, Auriemma holds a career record of 926-134. He was enshrined into the National Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006 and has won five titles since. If you want to know about all his other records and accomplishments, go somewhere else. Please.

Players to know

Breanna Stewart, senior, forward, 6'4, No. 30. Only the winner of the last two Naismith Trophies and AP Player of the Year awards, as well as the Most Outstanding Player of the last three Final Fours. There are a few thousand young women playing college basketball, and Stewart is the best. In eight games, she's averaging career highs in points (22.9), rebounds (8.1), assists (4.4), blocks (3.4) and steals (2.4). She also boasts a .626/.444/.822 shooting line. Stewart missed the LSU game after spraining her ankle in practice, but she'll be ready to roll for this one. Good luck, Terps.

Moriah Jefferson, senior, guard, 5'7, No. 4. Jefferson has been UConn's starting point guard every game since the start of her sophomore season (Monday will be her 89th straight). With Mosqueda-Lewis gone, she's now the headlining act in the Husky backcourt, averaging 13.1 points, 5.9 assists and 2.9 steals.

Morgan Tuck, redshirt junior, forward, 6'2, No. 3. A second-year starter averaging 15.1 points and 5.6 boards. Last year, she was fifth in the nation with a .596 field goal percentage, and dropped 24 points against Maryland in the Final Four. Her 15.1 points per game are second on the team, most of them coming inside (although she can drain a three if you're not careful).

Kia Nurse, sophomore, guard, 6'0, No. 11. Has started 45 of 48 games in her still-young career. Nurse was named the AAC freshman of the year in 2014-15, and is once again averaging double-digit points. The Canadian also helped her country clinch a spot in the 2014 FIBA World Championship.

Gabby Williams, sophomore, guard, 5'11, No. 15. A very good rebounding guard who corrals 6.9 boards a game. Most of her scoring (9.3 ppg) comes inside, which is why she's also shooting over 60% from the field.

Napheesa Collier, freshman, forward, 6'1, No. 24. Started the season on the bench but has replaced Williams in the starting lineup in the team's last two games. She likes to wreak havoc on defense; her 24 steals and 11 blocks are each second on the team, even though she averages a hair under 22 minutes a night.

Katie Lou Samuelson, freshman, forward, 6'3, No. 33. One of two freshman contributors for the Huskies. Despite her height, Samuelson is more of a shooter than anything else. She leads the team with 40 three-point attempts, but has only made 10 of them (25%). Expect her to chuck a few up against Maryland, and hope they're contested.

Natalie Butler, redshirt sophomore, center, 6'5, No. 51. The wild card. Butler didn't play last year because the transfer rules wouldn't allow it, and she's been kept out of action so far this season as she recovers from October thumb surgery. But in her freshman season at Georgetown, Natalie averaged 13.9 points and 13.3 rebounds (fifth in the nation) and was named Big East freshman of the year. It's still unclear whether or not she makes her UConn debut on Monday night, but the Terps will certainly have to plan for her either way.

Strengths

Forcing turnovers. UConn's opponents have given the ball away 21.5 times per game, and five different Huskies are averaging at least two steals.

Free-throw shooting. The team as a whole is shooting 74.2% from the line. A lot of that number comes from Stewart, who's 37 of 45 (82.2%), but the Huskies don't exactly have any weak links, either. Each of the players mentioned above is above 60%, highlighted by Samuelson's 91%.

Weakness

Depth (sort of). I'm kind of grasping at straws with this, because going eight deep with All-Americans and other big-time recruits is nothing to sneeze at, but Maryland should play at least ten if healthy. This could lead to the Terps' stars being just a little fresher come crunch time, but maybe it won't even matter.

Prediction

UConn, 80-72.

Despite everything I've just said, I expect Maryland to present a challenge for this team. Averaging 90 points per game, they have the best scoring and rebounding differential in the country, albeit against a very weak schedule. The Huskies will be a whole different animal, but big games are nothing new for a team coming off two straight Final Four appearances. It should be a great game, and I'm incredibly excited to go to Madison Square Garden to see it.