A look back at non-conference play
No. 8 Maryland (10-2) entered the season ranked No. 5 in both the Associated Press and USA TODAY/ESPN polls after a 2011-12 campaign that saw them start 16-0, beat Duke, Delaware and Georgia Tech twice in the regular season, claim the ACC tournament crown, and then eliminate defending champ Texas A&M from the NCAA tournament, en route to an impressive 31-5 mark and an Elite Eight appearance.
But the lingering question after an embarrassing 31-point loss at the hands of Skylar Diggins and Notre Dame that prevented the team from reaching the Final Four was: can Maryland legitimately compete for a national championship if the four or so teams ahead of them are all really 31 points better?
The problem last year was that the Terps never got the chance to test themselves against any of the eventual one seeds (Baylor, Notre Dame, Stanford or Connecticut) during the regular season. Their toughest tests came against bitter rival Duke, an opponent they fell to by 8 on the road and defeated by 2 at home.
Duke, like Maryland, ended up as a 2-seed in the NCAA tournament and also lost by double digits (though a more respectable 12 points) in the Elite Eight. In addition, they were upset by a non-NCAA tournament team, N.C. State, in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament, helping clear the way for the Terps to win that tournament. In the end, Maryland, despite being swept on the season by Miami, could have easily been dubbed the best team in the ACC last year, not Duke.
So ultimately, Duke is not really the biggest thing to fear in Terp Nation, though it's tough to say a team with Elizabeth Williams and Chelsea Gray both a year older isn't scary.
The reality is that Maryland has set the precedent of beating the Blue Devils. They know they are capable of contending with them again this year and capable of winning the ACC, because they've already done all that. But if they want to win the NCAA tournament, chances are a non-ACC team like Connecticut, Baylor, Stanford or Notre Dame will once again be standing in the way.
First taste of UConn
Things worked out nicely for the Terps: they had already scheduled the program's first ever game against UConn for this season before the tough loss to Notre Dame in the tournament.
Obviously, playing the Huskies for the first time was a huge deal - they are one of the top two greatest programs in women's college basketball history. Plus they were a Final Four participant from a year ago and ranked No. 2 in the nation at the time Maryland played them on Dec. 3.
And in light of recent events on Dec. 29, when UConn toppled previous No.1 Stanford, 61-35, the undefeated Huskies may now be the team to beat in women's college basketball. At the very least, it's safe to say they have as good a shot at winning the national championship as anybody.
Therefore, Maryland playing them in Connecticut and only losing by 15, which is tied with No. 9 Penn State for the closest anyone has come to beating them this season, is at least somewhat of a good sign and certainly makes the Terps battle tested for March.
The blemish on the resume
While the UConn loss offered reassurance that Maryland is closer than they were last year to being able to hang with women's college basketball's super powers, the Terps also had a major let down during their non-conference slate.
That came in the form of a shocking 50-49 loss at 66th RPI-ranked St. Joseph's on Nov. 17. The Terps shot just 20.7 percent from the field in the second half of that game, scoring just 14 points. In both of their losses, offense has been the problem and not so much defense - against UConn they put up 48 points.
Maryland lost a stunner last year too, to Virginia Tech, on Jan. 26, 2012. During that game, the Terps were without eventual ACC Player of the Year Alyssa Thomas, who was out due to a thumb injury. But even still, it was an embarrassing loss to the Hokies, who finished 2011-12 at 7-23 and ranked No. 216 in the RPI.
But Maryland was not derailed by that blow. Many of their season's great accomplishments came after the Virginia Tech game: the win over Duke, the ACC tournament title and the run to the Elite Eight. They were 13-2 post-Hokies, with the only losses coming to a great Miami team by a razor-thin margin and to Notre Dame in the tournament.
And so far this season, the Terps have rebounded nicely from the St. Joe's game, which was their third of the season. Since then, they have the one other loss to UConn and a couple of impressive wins over current No. 25/19 Nebraska and preseason No. 11/10 Delaware, who hasn't always had the talents of Elena Delle Donne at their service this year, but had them against the Terps.
Maryland won those games comfortably too, beating Nebraska by 19 and Delaware by 16, and they were both on the road. Of their eight other wins this year, seven have been against teams who rank 100th or above in the RPI. The Terps have won those contests by an average of 41.6 points. They have also won their first ACC game already and by 24 over 43rd RPI-ranked Virginia on Dec. 6.
All in all, we can't really tell too much about Maryland from the early going, considering seven of their twelve games have been against non-competitive opponents. But overall, it was a solid non-conference showing and they can be happy knowing that by the end of it they ended up only three spots lower in the rankings than where they were before the season started, despite the loss to St. Joe's.
A look ahead to the ACC
The other contenders
The chance to maybe move back up to No. 5 or even higher lies ahead for the Terps. However, they might need the help of teams in front of them losing and it will of course hinge on how they fare against Duke. A split with the Blue Devils could once again be a key factor in bumping Brenda Frese's crew up from a 3-seed to a 2-seed in the NCAA tournament.
But the two Duke games aren't the only two ACC contests the Terps should have circled on their calendars. Two others are coming up on Thursday in Chapel Hill, when Maryland takes on #15/23 North Carolina, and on Sunday, when they host #19/21 Florida State. The Terps will see each of those teams once more during the regular season as well, and don't forget about their one date with Miami, a team that began the year ranked and has defeated Penn State.
Another team that started the year ranked, Georgia Tech, is 7-5, but four of their losses have come to ranked teams. Plus, the Yellow Jackets have a history of giving the Terps all they can handle. Maryland is 6-2 in their last eight meetings against Georgia Tech, but neither team won any of those games by double digits and the Terps are lucky to have escaped with three victories against the Yellow Jackets last year, including one that went down to the wire in the ACC tournament championship game.
Players to watch
Without a doubt, Duke's Williams and Gray are the type of dynamic duo that can give Maryland's dynamic duo of Thomas and Tianna Hawkins nightmares. Williams, a 6-foot-3-inch center, was the National Freshman of the Year last year and is currently fifth in the ACC in points per game with 15.5. But the Terps may have the inside game to compete with her, as Hawkins is the same height and leading the conference with 18.8 points per game.
On the other hand, Gray is a junior point guard, who leads the ACC in assists per game with 6.2 and also scores just about as much as Williams at 14.5 points per game. Covering her will be a daunting task for Maryland freshman Chloe Pavlech.
Another guard to watch is Georgia Tech junior Tyaunna Marshall who is second to Hawkins in the ACC in points per game with 16.6 and, at 5-feet-9-inches, is fifth in the conference in rebounds per game with 8.8.
But the story of the ACC so far this year, as far as individual performances go, has been Hawkins, who is having a breakout season that nobody really saw coming. Could she or Thomas make it two ACC Player of the Year awards in a row for Maryland?
Terps hope best is yet to come
Maryland knew this could be a special year from the moment last year ended. And even though they have since lost a budding star in Brene Moseley and one of their best players in Laurin Mincy - both out for the season with ACL tears - their lofty goals may not have to change.
Alyssa Thomas has reached upperclassman status and with a triple-double already under her belt this year she is poised to have an even better season than last year. Meanwhile, Tianna Hawkins is making up for the loss of Moseley and Mincy by taking her game to a whole new level. And that ninth ranked recruiting class Brenda Frese brought in is doing extremely well for a team that lacks depth and badly needs them to step up.
Those freshmen and Maryland as a whole can only get better over the course of these next 17 ACC games. And as a coach who has been a big proponent of hyping up the Duke rivalry, Brenda Frese is likely going to savor them, knowing that she will soon be leaving the conference that at one point housed three of the best teams in women's college basketball.