Though less than one week remains until the NCAA reveals the 68 teams that will compete for the 2023 women’s basketball national championship, there is still considerable uncertainty around who will claim the field’s four No. 1 seeds.
With Selection Sunday set for March 12, defending national champion South Carolina (32-0, 16-0 SEC) has an ironclad case for the top overall seed, having won 38 consecutive games. Meanwhile, Big Ten regular-season champion Indiana (27-3, 16-2 Big Ten) appears to have a firm grip on one of the other No. 1 seeds, despite losing two of its last three games.
As for the remaining top seeds, there are a slew of contenders with flawed candidacies. Stanford (28-5, 15-3 Pac-12) and Utah (25-4, 15-3 Pac-12) both sputtered out of the Pac-12 Tournament early. LSU (28-2, 15-1 SEC) played a notoriously soft schedule that includes just one win over a ranked opponent, while Connecticut (28-5, 18-2 Big East) has been besieged by injuries.
For Maryland (25-6, 15-3 Big Ten), the instability at the top of women’s college basketball, combined with the strength of its own resume, seems to have opened the door to claim a No. 1 seed for the first time since 2015. The Terrapins missed out on a chance to pad their credentials over the weekend, losing to eventual champion Iowa (26-6, 15-3 Big Ten), 89-84 in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament.
Still, Maryland’s overall body of work presents a compelling case. The Terps played the toughest schedule in the country, according to the Massey ratings, posting a 7-4 mark against ranked opponents that included four victories over top-10 teams. They finished third in the powerhouse Big Ten, which had five teams ranked in the most recent Associated Press top 25, and their 25 wins are already two better than last year.
In a sign of the bracket’s volatility just days ahead of Selection Sunday, ESPN bracketologist Charlie Creme had Maryland slated as a No. 1 seed yesterday morning, then downgraded the Terps to a No. 2 seed by the afternoon after Virginia Tech won the ACC Tournament.
After Saturday’s loss to Iowa, senior guard Abby Meyers, who transferred to College Park ahead of this season from Princeton, acknowledged that the discourse around Maryland’s NCAA Tournament seeding was also a topic of conversation for some in the Terps’ locker room.
“A lot of my teammates love talking about that 1 seed,” she said. “For me, I’ve always been lower than a 10 seed, so I’ll take anything with this team.”
As recently as three months ago, it was hard to envision Maryland in the conversation for a No. 1 or 2 seed. On Dec. 4, the Terps opened the Big 10 portion of their schedule with a 23-point loss to unranked Nebraska, their worst home defeat to a conference opponent since joining the Big Ten in 2014. Afterward, coach Brenda Frese said the Cornhuskers “exposed us in every way possible.”
The resounding loss was the nadir of a mercurial start to Maryland’s season, one in which the Terps followed momentous victories against ranked opponents with deflating setbacks to teams outside the top 25. A host of existential questions followed: Would Maryland’s roster of one returning starter and nine newcomers coalesce in time for the Terps to remain a national standard bearer? Or did a tumultuous offseason — in which three of last season’s top six scorers defected through the transfer portal — signal that Maryland was no longer Maryland?
Over the next three months, the Terps relegated those early season doubts to distant memories, one statement win at a time. One week after the Nebraska loss, Maryland earned its first-ever victory over 11-time national champion Connecticut. In February, the Terps went 2-0 against Ohio State, including a 36-point drubbing on Feb. 5. On Feb. 21, Maryland routed Iowa by 38 points, handing National Player of the Year candidate Caitlin Clark the most lopsided defeat of her collegiate career.
“I’m not gonna lie, I mean this team is gonna go down as a really special group,” Frese said. “Last year, we all know it was a tough year personally and professionally. … From our staff’s end, when we were looking at, one point, [having only] seven, eight players on the roster, it was pretty daunting in the spring — you can ask my husband and my family. But just to see the right pieces come together and the fit and then to buy into a whole new system has been pretty incredible.”
The Terps entered the Big Ten Tournament having won 11 of their final 12 regular season games. They continued their winning ways through Friday’s quarterfinal round, defeating Illinois, 73-58. But their momentum stalled in a contentious, 89-84 semifinal loss to Clark and Iowa on Saturday.
“I think you just see between both teams just how elite, elite, elite both teams are,” Frese said after the Iowa loss. “Again, this could have been the championship game, could have been an Elite Eight game. All these games are just giving us great experience for what lies ahead.”
The conference tournament demonstrated the ways Maryland has evolved since its early-season inconsistencies. The Terps continue to be led by senior guard Diamond Miller, a projected WNBA lottery selection who showcased her scoring, playmaking and defensive talents by averaging 17.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, five assists and three steals over two Big Ten Tournament games.
But the ability of Maryland’s supporting cast to establish their roles alongside Miller has been equally as important to the Terps’ recent success. Meyers matched Miller in the scoring column over the weekend, while Maryland’s bench — led by senior Lavender Briggs, graduate student Brinae Alexander and freshman Bri McDaniel — outscored opponents 46-0.
“I’m excited for Bri,” Frese said of McDaniel, who contributed nine points in a season-high 26 minutes in the victory over Illinois. “You can see she’s young, she’s fearless, she’s competitive, has a chip on her shoulder. She didn’t look like a freshman in this tournament. We’re going to need that in the postseason. I love the fact she didn’t make it bigger than what it needed to be.”
The Terps, whose eight-player rotation features three returning players, four transfer players and one freshman, have also shown a much improved ability to play cohesively. In two Big Ten Tournament games, Maryland recorded 41 assists, compared to 22 turnovers. In their December loss to Nebraska, the Terps’ assist-to-turnover ratio was 11-to-17.
Still, Maryland’s weekend performance left room for improvement heading into March Madness. While the Terps have been a much more sound defensive team in the latter half of the season, they allowed a season-worst 117.1 points per 100 possessions in Saturday’s loss to Iowa, as all five Hawkeye starters reached double figures in scoring.
Afterward, Maryland sounded eager to turn the page and look ahead to making a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
“Their starters just made a few more plays tonight than us, but we don’t need to hang our head,” Frese said. “We can go back and know that we left everything out there and then just correct it and be ready for what lies ahead.”
“I just love battling with these girls,” Miller added. “It’s something that we do every day, and it’s something we’re going to continue to do in the NCAA Tournament.”
Sapna Bansil is a pediatric occupational therapist turned journalist who is enrolled in the graduate program at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.