Less than one month before basketball season officially arrives in College Park, Maryland women's basketball Coach Brenda Frese surveyed her team at practice.
Among the relatively small group of players – just 10 lined up to begin stretching, whereas the year before she'd had 15 – she saw fresh minds and bodies yet unburdened by a punishing nonconference schedule that begins Nov. 10 against Albany and includes games against Connecticut and the defending national champions South Carolina. She saw just two returning starters, sophomore guard Kaila Charles and senior guard Kristen Confroy. She saw one late addition to this year's squad, freshman Channise Lewis, the point guard who is meant to help fill the gap created by three players who transferred at the end of last season.
Mainly, Frese saw a lot of question marks.
"This is always my favorite time of year," she said, "with the unknowns."
As she turned away from her team, now running shooting drills in neat lines, Frese didn't shy away from the truth that defines these Terrapins, at least this early on. The graduation of all-Americans Brionna Jones and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough as well as the transfers of three players including last season's national freshman of the year, Destiny Slocum, has created plenty of questions for Maryland to answer during its nonconference slate.
Jones, Walker-Kimbrough and Slocum were the team's top three scorers last year; now Charles, who averaged 9.7 points per game last year and was selected to the Preseason All-Big Ten team, is the squad's lone go-to player. Who steps up as the second dependable scorer is one of the Terps' big unknowns.
Another is the team's short rotation, and if a roster of 10 can stay healthy enough to withstand the midseason slog of conference play and remain intact for the postseason. Yet another unknown is Lewis, the highly touted recruit and Miami native who faces high expectations as the freshman point guard arriving in Slocum's wake.
These questions surrounding Maryland means Frese's squad was ranked No. 15 in the Associated Press preseason top 25, their lowest debut in the preseason poll since 2011, when they started the year ranked No. 21 (the Terps won the ACC tournament that year and fell to Notre Dame in the Elite Eight).
Frese, who on Friday begins her 16th season leading the team, expects a certain level of doubt regarding Maryland's standing in the national landscape.
"Putting all these pieces together, we've had a lot of players silently waiting their turn," Frese said last month when asked what she expects from her team early this season. "So I'm really excited for them and the opportunity that presents itself. Also just being patient. … just understanding the patience that we need to have with such a young team. You're asking Kaila Charles, as a sophomore, to be a go-to player for you."
Both Frese and her players have faith in the Terps' system.
That Big Ten coaches still picked Maryland to finish second in the league behind the senior-laden squad at Ohio State is a vote of confidence. The Terrapins also got a head start in learning to play without Jones, Walker-Kimbrough and Slocum over the summer when they played six games in Taiwan representing Team USA at the World University Games.
"Definitely ahead of any season that we've had before," Frese said, "which we needed with all the changes."
One of the biggest changes Frese is installing this year comes at the point guard position, where Maryland is no stranger to transition. This year Lewis and sophomore guard Sarah Myers are expected to split minutes, marking the fourth personnel change at the point guard position in the past five seasons.
A backup wing who was converted in part to help ease Lewis's transition to the college game, Myers averaged 1.4 points in limited minutes in 28 games last season. Frese describes Lewis as a pass-first point guard who is still working on catching up defensively with the rest of the team.
"What you get every day is a consistent, upbeat personality," Frese said of Lewis, "which is a natural leadership skill. In that position, it bodes well for her career."
While Myers and Lewis will share primary ballhandling duties, Frese is also changing the Terps' strategy this year. A typically up-tempo team that led the conference in scoring offense, assists, steals and turnover margin last season, Frese is giving more freedom to her post players to rebound and bring the ball up the floor rather than wait for a point guard to set the offense.
That allows players such as Brianna Fraser and Stephanie Jones, both forwards with what Frese calls "guard-like tendencies," to create opportunities to score in transition.
"We like to say that our best player is our team," Confroy said. "Knowing that every person doing a little bit more, bringing a little bit more to the table is really taking our team to the next level and recognizing that [playing] as a team is where we're really going to find the most success, not so much individuals carrying us like Shatori and Bri did last year."
That Frese has a plan for the point guard spot answers one major question facing the Terps this season. The other unknowns, she believes, will all be resolved in time.
"Where we're at in the nonconference is not going be where we're at come conference play," Frese said. "We're understanding that it's going be a process for us early."