WOMEN'S COLLEGE BASKETBALL PREVIEW

A Dynasty in the Making?

Crystal Langhorne, from left to right, Marissa Coleman and Kristi Toliver celebrated the Terp women's first national championship last April.
Crystal Langhorne, from left to right, Marissa Coleman and Kristi Toliver celebrated the Terp women's first national championship last April. (Photos By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)

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By Marc Carig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 9, 2006

The Maryland women's basketball team returns every critical piece of its national championship lineup, the core of which consists of sophomores and juniors. The names of Terrapin players dot preseason awards watch lists. And people around the team are anticipating what's shaping up to be a top five recruiting class.

Those outside of College Park have taken note as well.

Following its 34-4 season and romp through the NCAA tournament last spring, Maryland earned the No. 1 ranking in the preseason Associated Press poll yesterday, the first time in a decade that Tennessee, Connecticut or Duke didn't occupy the top spot.

With this, Washington Mystics General Manager Linda Hargrove asked the natural question. "For a young team to do what they did last year, it starts you thinking," said Hargrove, a veteran of the college coaching ranks. "Can they duplicate, triplicate? Can they do it again and again?"

That's the question surrounding the Terrapins as they begin the defense of their national championship at Middle Tennessee tomorrow. All five starters from the championship team return, including its leading scorer, junior forward Crystal Langhorne, and ACC rookie of the year Marissa Coleman. Guard Shay Doron, a second-team all-American, is the only senior among the starters.

From the establishment of the women's NCAA tournament in 1982, the story of women's college basketball has been one of dynastic runs.

Louisiana Tech and Southern California each won two national titles in the 1980s. Coach Pat Summitt built the first dynasty at Tennessee, winning six national championships, the last in 1998. Coach Geno Auriemma elevated Connecticut into a national power in the mid-1990s, winning three straight national championships from 2002 to 2004 and five titles overall.

But in the two seasons since U-Conn.'s dominant run, the landscape has changed dramatically. Baylor won the title in 2005, becoming the first first-time champ since Purdue in 1999. Maryland's championship last season extended the trend, supporting a growing consensus by those in the game that the era of dynasties is over.

"We all want to be that dynasty," said Maryland Coach Brenda Frese, whose national championship necklace glittered under the lights at Comcast Center during a recent practice. "But you kind of have to watch. You see those dynasties from the past weren't in the Final Four this past year winning it, Maryland winning it. You start to see a lot of new teams and faces."

Maryland will have serious challenges within its own conference. North Carolina and Duke reached the Final Four from the ACC last season and are contenders to go that far again. Meanwhile, Baylor and Louisiana State have advanced deep into the tournament in recent years.

"There are more schools being more serious about excellence in women's basketball," said Maryland Athletic Director Debbie Yow, a former college basketball coach. "There's TV exposure that was not there in earlier years."

Leon Barmore, the former head coach at Louisiana Tech, said the list of national championship contenders is longer than ever, stretching to as many as 20 schools. "There's so many teams that are out there now," said Barmore, who was an assistant when Louisiana Tech won the first NCAA women's basketball title in 1982 and head coach during the Lady Techsters' 1988 championship season. "Now, there's teams that just come out of nowhere, but I think that this is good. This is great for the game to know there's a team sitting out there who can do it where years ago they didn't have a prayer."

While the pool of high school talent in women's basketball is expanding, the competition among colleges for those recruits is intense. Hargrove said a more realistic goal now is consistency.

"I just think a dynasty is going to be really, really difficult," Hargrove said. "As far as a high success level, I definitely think Maryland is on track to continue its winning ways for many years. But it seems to me 'high level' and 'dynasty' are two different things."

But even in a period of relative parity, some say the Terrapins are in position to become an exception. While Barmore said he doesn't expect any more dynasties to emerge, he admitted that Maryland has the tools to make a run.

"They certainly have a lot of things going for them to do it," Barmore said.

He said Yow, a former head basketball coach at Kentucky and Florida, has placed an importance on women's teams at the school. "I think that's huge," Hargrove said. "Having a woman in that position is huge. Women like to see women succeed and their women's sports succeed."

Maryland also looks to have coaching stability, another important ingredient in the formula for dynasty building.

At 36, Frese is acknowledged as one of the more dynamic young coaches in the game. When Frese married Mark Thomas, a native Marylander with deep family ties to the school, Yow said she saw it as a sign that Frese could be in College Park to stay. "I was very excited about that," Yow said about the fifth-year coach.

After winning the title, Yow said women's basketball season ticket sales more than tripled, going from about 2,000 last season to more than 7,000 this year.

Then there's excitement on the court itself, starting with the Terrapins' talented roster. Yow said all those ingredients together could lead to something special.

"We're going to have a great opportunity here to develop a program of sustained excellence and be remembered for it, and have Brenda and those teams be remembered as the individuals who created that," she said.


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