Final 4 berth raises UM's spirits, profile

Women's recruiting, attendance likely to get boost

College Basketball

Ncaa Women

Ncaa Tournament

March 30, 2006|By EDWARD LEE | EDWARD LEE,SUN REPORTER

College Park -- All season, Brenda Frese has preached to her Maryland women's basketball team the necessity of living in the present and seizing the moment.

And for now, the Terps can lay claim to being one of the four best teams in the country after securing a spot in the NCAA tournament Final Four in Boston.

It has been a humbling and awe-inspiring journey for Maryland, which was eight games under .500 in Frese's first season as coach in 2002-03.

"You can obviously look back to four years ago when we were 10-18 and, holy cow, now we're going to the Final Four," she said moments after the second-seeded Terps defeated fifth-seeded Utah, 75-65, in overtime in the Albuquerque Regional final Monday night.

"You just can't take any of it for granted. This is kind of surreal. There are coaches who coach for a lifetime and never make it to this point. It's something pretty special."

There's nothing final about the Final Four to Maryland. Emerging as one of the four teams left standing from a field of 64 could yield benefits that the Terps may cultivate for years.

Athletic director Debbie Yow has seen it happen before. When the men's team captured the national championship in 2002, the program's exposure increased exponentially, and the team garnered an unfamiliar but welcome benefit, she said.

"There was a different level of respect across the country for the program," Yow said. "The further you go, the more that is. That just continues to rise. It's special."

Unlike the men's teams, however, the women's teams don't get money for making it to the Final Four, said Larry Leckonby, the school's senior associate director of athletics for business and finance. Because of the lack of a lucrative television contract, the women's tournament doesn't generate the kind of revenue that the men's tournament does.

The NCAA does, however, pick up expenses related to the tournament for qualifiers.

One recent model for Maryland is Baylor, the 2005 national champion. The Lady Bears were considered a solid - if unspectacular - squad, racking up impressive regular-season records before falling in the first and second rounds of the 2001 and 2002 NCAA tournaments, respectively, missing it entirely in 2003, and then reaching the Sweet 16 in 2004.

But after winning the national title last year, Baylor's profile drew more interest. Average attendance increased from 6,835 in 2005 to 7,717 this season. The Lady Bears' recruiting class for next season is rated ninth in the country behind perennial powerhouses Connecticut and Duke, according to Blue Star Report, an online service that ranks recruiting classes. Baylor's recruiting classes went unranked for at least the previous four years.

Pam Ward, an ESPN broadcaster and Maryland graduate, said the Terps, who have already received commitments from forwards Demauria Liles of Riverdale Baptist and Emery Wallace of Hidden Valley, Va., could enjoy similar recruiting success for the 2007-08 season.

"It would just open up even more recruits if that's possible," Ward said. "I think a lot of people still can't believe that Maryland's this good. I just think it would open up a lot more doors, and they would be getting even more people coming in to play for them, which is scary because right now they're getting great people."

Mike Flynn, the publisher of Blue Star Report who also directed the Philadelphia Belles program for which sophomore Crystal Langhorne and Laura Harper played when they were in high school, disagrees slightly, arguing that coaches can't slide and let previous results attract recruits.

But Flynn noted that today's high school players are tapped into the recruiting pipeline and, with the ease of the Internet, are more knowledgeable about programs than ever before.

"Today's recruits are very astute as to what programs are doing, and college coaches are always trying to reshape their buzz," he said. "In Maryland's case, people that once had free rein to recruit from Virginia to New York without any competition from Maryland now are extremely unhappy. ... A handful of [Frese's] top-flight peers now don't fear the turtle but hate the turtle."

Interest in the Terps continues to bloom. Average attendance at games has gone from 2,584 (45th nationally) in 2003-04 to 4,189 (24th) a year ago to 4,814 (21st) this season.

Leckonby, the school's chief financial officer, said a primary example of fan interest centered over the last three home contests against unranked opponents at Comcast Center.

On Feb. 5, 9,099 fans watched the Terps defeat Virginia, 85-71. On Feb. 23, the team routed Clemson, 89-63, before 4,954. And in Maryland's regular-season finale against lightly regarded Northern Colorado, 5,914 attended an 89-53 victory.

Leckonby said a Final Four appearance could expand the team's fan base even more.

"Everyone likes a successful program, and they are elite," he said. "It's tremendous advertising for the program and the school. Anytime a marquee program is on television and in newspapers on a regular basis, it just adds to a general feel from the student body in attracting students to the University of Maryland. I think it's positive all around."

edward.lee@baltsun.com

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