It's hard to imagine Alyssa Thomas getting any better than she was the past two years. But she has improved her points, rebounds and assists per game averages each year she has been in college.
Even still, some may argue that the talent around Thomas didn't improve drastically enough - that Laurin Mincy replaces Tianna Hawkins' star power nicely, but the Terps need a third or fourth star to overcome the 20 to 30 points that have separated them from women's basketball's elite in each of their past three elimination games. Others might say that with their depth and talented freshman and sophomores they do have the supporting cast to win it all.
But whatever others' perceptions may be, there is definitely a feeling around No. 8/6 Maryland women's basketball that this year is going to be special. Last year their official hash tag was #Allin2Win. This year it's #WeWill.
#WeWill could mean a lot of things, but it seems like they're putting their foot down and saying ‘this is the year.' The year they reclaim what they won in 2006 and what head coach Brenda Frese probably planned on winning more than once before now: a national championship.
"This team this season - probably the most driven, committed team that I've ever been around in my 12 years here at Maryland," Frese said at the team's media day on Oct. 9. "You can definitely see every single day that they come into a workout, into practice, that there's a purpose. After we lost last season, where most people would have been satisfied with a Sweet 16 finish, this group wasn't."
Last year was tough for Maryland, because of all the injuries. Mincy was out for essentially the whole year with an ACL tear, along with another very good guard in Brene Moseley. Center Essence Townsend also missed the whole year and now sophomore forward Tierney Pfirman missed considerable time between her dislocated knee cap and mono.
But the Terps' dissatisfaction with where they've finished seasons goes beyond 2012-13.
In addition to losing to UConn by 24 in the Sweet 16 last year, Maryland lost to Notre Dame by 31 in the Elite Eight in 2012 and by 22 to Georgetown in the second round in 2011. The Hoyas were even a lower seed (5) than the Terps (4) that year and won that 22-point game at Comcast Center, Maryland's home arena.
If you go back further, 2009 is another year that haunts Terp Nation. Two stars who were key contributors during their freshman year's national championship run, Marissa Coleman and Kristi Toliver, were at their best in 2008-09, leading Maryland to a 28-4 record and a No. 1 seed entering the NCAA tournament. It seemed like the dynamic duo was destined to leave UMD with another title, but Angel McCoughtry and Louisville upset them and won by 17 in the Elite Eight.
In Division I women's college basketball, only two teams have won three or more national championships. Those schools are Tennessee and UConn, each with eight titles. The door is wide open for any other school to become the third dynasty behind those two. And if things had gone a little differently over the past seven years, Maryland might already be on their way there.
But they are of course looking ahead, where the opportunity still presents itself.
Everything this year will depend on Thomas, the senior, two-time ACC Player of the Year and Brenda Frese's preseason pick for National Player of the Year. A colossal performance from her on any given night in the NCAA tournament could be the difference between capturing that national title and going home early again.
However, the Terps have impressively brought in top recruits in the grades below Thomas, perhaps indicating that she won't have to do it on her own. Most notably, center Malina Howard was the No. 8 overall recruit in the nation in the high school class of 2012 and guard Lexie Brown was the No. 15 overall recruit in this year's class. Not only will Howard and Brown help in the immediate future, but they may also keep Maryland among the national contenders for years to come.
"Obviously at different times through graduation, you're gonna be reloading," Frese said when asked to assess how her program has progressed each year since missing the NCAA tournament in 2010. "Every year we try to come back and regardless of adversity or what we face we try to get better. And I thought we were able to do that last season when you talk about the injuries that we had...Every year we want to be a top 5 program, we want to be able to compete for championships."
And compete they will, including against defending champion UConn on Nov. 15 in their third game of the season. Early on, the Terps will get to see how they measure up to the best of the best - a Husky team that returns its top three scorers in Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Breanna Stewart and Stefanie Dolson.
One thing Maryland has going for them this time, after three years of being on the brink of being elite, is the return of Mincy and Moseley. They will join reigning starting point guard, sophomore Chloe Pavlech, Brown and 3-point specialist Katie Rutan at a position where the Terps will be loaded.
"I'm just thankful and excited to be able to get back," said Moseley, an All-ACC Freshman Team selection in 2012 who led the Terps in 3-point field goal percentage that year. "We're gonna be guard-strong. I mean with the injuries that we had last year, our strengths were our bigs. Coming into this year we got me, Chloe, Lexie, Mincy, Katie, all 3-point shooters. So I'm expecting to see our numbers go up."
With a roster of 14 healthy players, the Terps are hoping to have depth at more than just the guard position. In the post, senior Alicia DeVaughn still brings the physicality and rebounding skills Maryland has become known for. Meanwhile, Howard has the opportunity to fill a void left by Tianna Hawkins as a great inside-out scorer as well as a great rebounder.
"I think losing Tianna has definitely made an impact in our rebounding," Howard said. "But I think that all of us posts and even the guards too have had a major emphasis on making sure we continue with the rebounding. We work on it every day in practice, always crashing the boards and just being a dominant force."
6-3 freshman Brionna Jones will add to the center rotation and already had a nice 14-point performance in the Terps' first exhibition game against Catholic. She, Brown, forward A'Lexus Harrison and 5-11 guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough make up Maryland's freshman class. All were in the HoopGurlz top 100. None was quite as heralded as Brown coming in, but since she's been on campus Walker-Kimbrough has had a lot of people within the program talking.
"Shatori Walker-Kimbrough is a player that a lot of you may not know," Frese said. "She's kind of a name that most people didn't know coming in. But I promise you by the time she graduates it's gonna be a name that you're really gonna know.
"Three-sport athlete coming out of high school - volleyball, basketball, track. Could have went high Division I in any of the sports. And probably one of the most athletic players you're gonna see. Can defend, can score, is really challenging at the two-guard spot. [She's] really making an impact coming in as a freshman and is gonna be a lot of fun to be able to watch," Frese said.
So while there is a sense of urgency for the team to win a national championship during Thomas' time in college, the window isn't exactly closing on Maryland's chances. It may just be opening, as another Pennsylvanian like Thomas in Walker-Kimbrough could one day take the torch as Thomas has taken it from Coleman, Toliver and Crystal Langhorne. National championships are hard to come by, but Maryland has put the pieces in place to continue competing for them, maybe for a long time.