- The Washington Times - Friday, March 2, 2007

Maryland women’s basketball coach Brenda Frese had one more item of business to conduct before wrapping up practice the other day.

“Terp Drills!” she announced, prompting a few groans.

“I ain’t heard ‘Terp Drills’ since November,” one player said.

But now it’s March. Time to step things up. So, the Terps ran and passed and shot as they endured their wilting, length-of-the-court exercise.

“A new slate,” Frese said. “A new season.”

The defending national champions will need every edge, any little boost for their new season, which starts with the four-day ACC tournament in Greensboro, N.C. The Terps (26-4), who earned a first-round bye, begin play tonight against sixth-seeded Georgia Tech, a winner last night against Miami.

There are so-called “power” conferences and then there is the ACC. Like last year, the league is remarkably top-heavy with talent. The top three tournament seeds — unbeaten Duke, North Carolina and Maryland — rank among the top 10 teams in the country and at one point were the top three.

“In all the coaching I’ve been through, to have three of the top teams in your conference as well as in the country is truly amazing,” said Frese, who came to Maryland in 2002 after coaching Minnesota for one season following two years at Ball State. She began her coaching career as an assistant in 1994 at Kent State.

“You really have to keep it in perspective within your own team because, as a competitor, when you lose, sometimes that can affect your confidence,” she said.

That was not a problem last year, when Maryland lost to North Carolina in the ACC final, only to go on to win it all in the NCAA tournament.

A year ago, North Carolina, Duke and Maryland were ranked first, second and fourth nationally, entering the ACC tournament. This year, Duke (29-0) and UNC (27-3) rank first and fourth, respectively, in the Associated Press poll, while the Terps rank sixth.

Tennessee and Connecticut rank second and third and Ohio State is fifth.

Whether the ACC has the three best teams in spite of the rankings will be determined. In the meantime, a certain biased contingent believes it does.

“The amount of talent that’s in the conference is unheard of,” junior All-ACC center Crystal Langhorne said.

Said sophomore guard/forward Marissa Coleman, the ACC rookie of the year last season: “I think we’re the most dominant conference.”

Only two teams occupied the top spot in both polls during the entire season and both represent the ACC. Maryland was No. 1 for 10 straight weeks before losing at Duke on Jan. 13. Then the Blue Devils, ranked third at the time, took over.

For five straight weeks, Duke, North Carolina and Maryland were ranked 1-2-3 and for 15 successive weeks two ACC teams were first and second. Three of Maryland’s four losses came to Duke and UNC, and UNC lost twice to Duke.

“I was out recruiting the other day and I was telling my husband, ‘If you were a recruit, who wouldn’t want to come and play in the ACC?’ ” Frese said. “I mean, you get to play in the best conference. You look at the first, second, third, honorable mention [All-ACC] teams. I mean, it’s phenomenal to make one of those teams, there are so many great players in the league.”

All five players on the all-conference first team are from Duke, North Carolina and Maryland. Half of the 20 players who got votes are from the three schools, including Coleman (second team) and Maryland guard Kristi Toliver (third team).

The ACC top-to-bottom might be another argument, however. The league likely lacks the overall strength of the Southeastern Conference, the Big East and the Big 12, although N.C. State, Georgia Tech (which beat Maryland), and Florida State have firmed up the middle of the conference.

But one reason the bottom of the league is weak might be that the top is so strong.

“It used to be a two-team race,” Frese said, speaking of Duke and North Carolina. “Now you’ve got Maryland in the mix and you’ve got other teams on the edge.”

As the Terps demonstrated last year, emerging from (or surviving) the ACC tournament, in addition to the challenging regular season, probably helps for what lies ahead.

“I think you saw that last year, how the ACC tournament prepares you for the NCAAs,” Coleman said.

Said Frese: “When you look at our conference, it obviously prepares you for games that you’re gonna see in the Sweet 16, the Elite Eight, the Final Four, throughout the NCAA tournament. We are very fortunate. I think you have to have the perspective that we’re playing in the best conference in the country and the three teams — us, Duke and North Carolina — make each other better.”

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