For years, the George Washington women's basketball program has been a model of consistency. The Colonials have won at least 20 games in 14 of the last 15 seasons. The year they didn't win 20 games, they won 19. They also have made 12 NCAA tournament appearances during that time and are no strangers to the top 25 polls.
Yet for all its success, GW rarely has advanced past the second round of the NCAA tournament. And when it comes to establishing a program's reputation, what happens in March trumps what happens any other time of the year.
"We were consistently, I thought, a threat in the NCAA tournament to make a run at the Final Four," GW Coach Joe McKeown said. "Since '97, we have not been to the Sweet 16, and that's hard for me to swallow because I think we've had some great teams."
As the season begins, three area teams face different challenges in their attempts to build elite programs. GW must break through its glass ceiling. Maryland, which seems to have emerged from its decade-long mire in mediocrity, needs to find a way to reach the next level. And Georgetown seeks to pull itself out of its torpor and assert itself on the national stage.
GW's success during the regular season hasn't translated into the postseason in part because the Colonials' league, the Atlantic 10, is not considered a power and consequently its teams rarely receive good seeds. Last year, Atlantic 10 rival Temple went 27-3 and had the longest winning streak in Division I at 24 games, but the selection committee awarded it only a sixth seed.
In the women's tournament, a poor seed often means playing on an opponent's home floor. Last year, GW lost to North Carolina on the Tar Heels' home court.
"We're a little bit victim," McKeown said. "I've got to keep politicking for better seeds. . . . Why can't [GW] win in the NCAA tournament past the second round? Try playing at Connecticut every year. It's tough."
Maryland, meanwhile, has a strong tradition in women's basketball. Its men's program won the national championship three years ago, giving the Terrapins a certain prestige with recruits. It has an energetic young coach and a roster laden with McDonald's all-Americans. But what will prevent Maryland from ending up like GW, a good team that hasn't broken through?
"We've really talked a lot about that this season as a staff," Maryland Coach Brenda Frese said. "We've challenged our team. I thought a lot last year we would play to the level of the competition, and that's the biggest thing. I think you see that a lot still with a young team. You play to the level of competition. I think that's something where our level of competition has got to be the bar that we set for ourselves."
Much of what Frese is talking about is an attitude. Tennessee and Connecticut players believe they are the best and bring with them a certain intimidation factor.
"You kind of walk with that extra swagger in your step and you have that elite level of confidence that, hey, if it's a tight game and it's close, you're going to pull it out because you just know," Frese said. "You believe in yourself and your team."
Frese has no illusions about what the Terrapins' No. 14 ranking in the Associated Press poll means.
"We're still really, really young into this process," she said.
No one is expecting Georgetown to win a national championship anytime soon. While GW and Maryland can talk about contending for Final Fours, the Hoyas are searching for success. In three of the last four years, Georgetown has finished with a losing record. The Hoyas haven't had what can be considered a successful season since 1993 when they won 23 games and reached the round of 16, their only NCAA tournament appearance to date.
Having been associated with some of the top programs in the country, Coach Terri Williams-Flournoy knows exactly what it takes to turn it around: recruiting.
"If you look at every top program in the country, they've got two or three great kids on the team," she said. "Every year you've got to sign a great player."
But convincing kids to come play for a team that hasn't enjoyed success is no easy feat.
"I tell them I can't be held accountable for the past," Williams-Flournoy said. "You've got to look at the future and what we want to do here."
Williams-Flournoy knows it is still a tough sell. Although she convinced a McDonald's all-American to come to Georgetown this year -- freshman Katrina Wheeler -- she pointed out that Baylor won the national championship with a roster full of under-recruited players.
"You don't always have to sign a top 50 player," Williams-Flournoy said "You get kids who know how to win and play hard."
Now that more schools take an interest in women's basketball, reaching the elite has become more difficult.
"It's a little more challenging," Williams-Flournoy said. "It's good, though."