Maryland’s 2018–19 season may hinge on becoming elite again on offense

For almost any program, the season that the University of Maryland women’s basketball team had last year would be considered a rousing success. The Terps posted a 26–8 record, finished second in the Big Ten at 12–4, and earned a 5-seed in the NCAA tournament. All of these accomplishments came despite only having ten players on the roster and then losing second-leading scorer Blair Watson to a torn ACL on January 10.

However, Maryland has been so dominant since moving from the ACC to the Big Ten in 2014–15 that last year’s performance actually represented a small decline. The Terps lost a total of 3 Big Ten games between the 2014–15 and 2016–17 seasons, but last season the team lost three conference games in a row. In the Big Ten tournament final last season, Maryland lost to Ohio State — its first loss ever in the Big Ten tournament after three straight tournament championships. Then the Terps entered the NCAA tournament as a #5 seed and lost to fourth-seeded North Carolina State in the second round. In the previous three years, the team had earned no worse than a #3 seed and advanced to the 2015 Final Four as the #1 seed.

One reason behind this drop-off from an elite, Final Four-caliber team to last year’s very good, top-25 team is shooting. Maryland has historically been an excellent offensive team: its Her Hoop Stats offensive rating was 15th in the nation last year and in the top 7 in the three previous seasons. As shown in the graph below, Maryland also ranked outside the top 10 last year for the first time in the past four seasons in several other offensive categories. The team’s true shooting percentage fell the furthest, from third in the nation in 2016–17 to 41st last year. This was a difference of almost 5 percentage points (58.1% to 53.4%, respectively).

Maryland’s rank among Division I programs, 2014–15 through 2017–18.

Discussing this decline may seem like nitpicking — most programs would leap at the chance to have the success that coach Brenda Frese’s team had in 2017–18. But scoring is always at a premium in the postseason, so — as we saw from Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale in the 2018 Final Four — having an offense that can have the last word is invaluable. Maryland’s offense was incredibly balanced last year, with seven players averaging at least 9.0 points per game, but it only mustered 60 points in the season-ending loss to NC State. Having an elite offense is especially crucial for Maryland because it has historically not been an elite defensive team. Maryland was 78th in points allowed per 100 possessions last season and finished outside the top 50 teams in most Her Hoop Stats defensive metrics over the past four seasons.

With the Terps’ 2018–19 campaign just a few weeks away, the question is whether this year’s team will return to its old level of offensive dominance or fight to stay in the top 25 after losing four upperclassmen.

The good news for Maryland is that it returns All-Big Ten First Team forward Kaila Charles and three more of its top seven scorers from last year,* and also adds the nation’s fourth-ranked recruiting class. As a sophomore last year, Charles led her team with 17.9 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks per game — all nearly double what she averaged in her freshman season. Meanwhile, the three freshmen on the roster can all score: forwards Shakira Austin and Olivia Owens each averaged double-doubles in high school, and guard Taylor Mikesell once made 14 three-pointers in a single game en route to 60 points. The final newcomer, junior guard Sara Vujačić, was a first-team All-American for Walters State Community College in Tennessee last year, averaging 16.7 points per game and shooting 45% from 3-point range.

The newcomers’ three-point shooting could be the part of their games that the team needs most right away. The graduation of Kristen Confroy, who finished her career second in Maryland history in three-pointers made (217) and third in three-point percentage (40.5%), leaves an obvious hole. Eleanna Christinaki, who attempted an average of 3 three-pointers per game, opted to play professionally in Europe rather than return for 2018–19. And Watson, whose injury may sideline her for part of the season, shot 44% from beyond the arc last year. If she does miss time, sophomore Channise Lewis will be the only returning player who attempted more than one three-pointer per game last season.

Lewis, who averaged 5.4 points and 4.7 assists, may be a prime candidate to increase her scoring output and make a “sophomore leap” like Charles did a year ago. If she does, then Maryland has experience at point guard and on the wing with Lewis and Charles; sharpshooting guards in Vujačić and Mikesell; and a deep group of post players with Austin, Owens, junior Stephanie Jones, and senior Brianna Fraser, all of whom stand 6’3” or taller. Even without Watson, this is a group that could have a lot of offensive firepower.

Maryland is also a team with a lot of new players, and its cohesiveness will be tested early this season. Before Thanksgiving, Maryland will play last year’s Atlantic 10 regular season champions, Dayton, on November 11 and the 2017 national champions, South Carolina, on November 18. Those games will be early signals of whether this team can be an elite scoring team again by the time Big Ten play starts, or whether it might be looking up at some conference foes when the postseason rolls around.

*Watson, who averaged 13.8 points per game before her injury, should return sometime this season, but a specific timetable is unknown.

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