Terps get taste of more than best wishes

Ncaa Women

Ncaa Tournament

March 29, 2006|By RICK MAESE

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Everyone loves a winner, right?

Certainly around College Park today, there's not much debate about who exactly is the hot-shot coach around campus. The name isn't Ralph and it isn't Gary. It's Brenda.

Across the nation, though, women's basketball fans, coaches and observers don't always embrace a winner. That's what happens when we reach the postseason. When only four teams are left standing, you can bet many of the others are back home griping.

Brenda Frese is in just her fourth year coaching the Terps. She carried the women's program to grace as quickly as the school's men's program fell from it. Top-ranked recruiting classes, NCAA tournament invitations and now the creme de la creme - Maryland's proud return to the Final Four.

It's success that's worth celebrating - but not everywhere. The world of women's basketball can be a petty, jealous place. It's a sorority house for grown-ups - who don't always act like grown-ups.

If you scroll the Internet or listen to the whispers, you'd find it easy to discredit Frese's success. She didn't pay her dues, they say; she doesn't play by the rules; and she doesn't deserve this success - all charges stained with envy, with few traces of veracity.

As the Terps began their push for the NCAA tournament, a tip landed at the NCAA home office. Someone - the person's exact identity isn't publicly known - thought the NCAA should look into Maryland's recruiting practices.

NCAA investigators showed up on campus last month and spoke with some of the Terps' players. Thus far, nothing has come of it. The NCAA hasn't even submitted a letter of inquiry to school officials, usually the first step in any formal investigation.

Reason suggests that if the NCAA even suspected Frese had broken rules, it wouldn't be waiting until after the tournament to begin an investigation.

Though Maryland hasn't been notified that its program is in the clear, team officials are refusing to give the charges too much thought. They're wise to focus on basketball. If this all blows over, that's all the history books will remember.

"I stay focused on the positive," Frese says. "I'm really focused on this team and us having a special season. Our players and our staff have done so much hard work. You can only control what you can control."

But the anonymous and blind accusations still have meaning, if not merit. It points to some of the flaws in the world of women's basketball. We'll probably never know who pointed the finger at Maryland. But if someone thought Frese was recruiting illegally, it feels like a safe bet that her accuser is someone Frese recruited against.

In just a short time, the Terps find themselves battling for blue-chippers against traditionally powerful programs. Players like Marissa Coleman and Kristi Toliver didn't exactly fly under the radar. They chose Maryland over the nation's best.

This old guard of coaches isn't accepting of new blood. They don't like that Frese elbowed her way to the top so quickly. In the women's game, recruiting has become especially competitive - and personal. It has soured long-standing relationships. When you win a prized recruit, it can come with a knife in the back.

"It's an unfortunate thing," Frese says. "Everything can be so good. But I've heard from Day One, when you get into the recruiting battle, it's the flip side of the coin. You're going head-to-head and there's tremendous battles against teams that have been successful for so long.

"Anytime you climb up the ladder, you have a ton of supporters and there are those ... " She pauses, thinking about her words. " ... there are those that are just competitive competitors."

The women's game has made strides. Not long ago, there were just a couple of elite programs that were several laps ahead of a large field of dreamers. If a player had a scholarship offer from a school like Connecticut or Tennessee, she didn't need to make a pro-con list.

With new, brash coaches joining the ranks and with parity spreading across the landscape, high school stars have more choices today. Programs like Maryland have clawed their way back to the top. And the Terps did it because they bested the best on the recruiting trail.

It's easy to see why other schools might be upset. This season's starting lineup is young, including two freshmen and two sophomores. Frese knew from the start that she had something special. Last fall, when the new class set foot on campus, they immediately began talking about the Final Four in Boston.

In January, the Terps were up in Massachusetts for a game against Boston College. After a shoot-around earlier in the day, Frese ordered the players onto a bus. She didn't tell them where they were headed.

When the players arrived at the FleetCenter, most still didn't make the connection, not until their coach began talking.

"We told them that this is where the Final Four would be," Frese said. "This is what we all wanted, what we were playing for. And we talked about what it would take to be a part of it."

There has been adversity. These players grew up quick. Monday night's victory over Utah marked their fifth overtime win this season.

Along the way, they've beaten the odds, their opponents and their own inexperience. Now they face off against pettiness.

A team that dares to knock on the door of the sport's penthouse suite shouldn't have to endure a gauntlet of gossip to get into the party.

You don't have to always love a winner. But you should learn to respect one.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Read Rick Maese's blog at baltimoresun.com/maeseblog

Women's Final Four

SUNDAY'S SEMIFINALS

North Carolina vs. Maryland, 7 p.m., ESPN

Duke vs. LSU, 9:30 p.m., ESPN

TUESDAY'S TITLE GAME

Semifinal winners,

8:30 p.m., ESPN

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