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|Maryland's first big test comes Friday. The Terps and All-American Alyssa Thomas host UConn.|
Maryland's Alyssa Thomas is almost certain to hear her name called very, very early in April at the WNBA draft. When she says that's not at all on her mind now, though, you believe her.
"I see her just appreciating every hour, every moment, of her senior year," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. "She's not stressed about it. This is the most confident, comfortable place she's been in."
After an up-close look at some of the best players in the WNBA in October, Thomas got even more motivation for her final season with the Terps. She was invited to the USA Basketball minicamp in Las Vegas, and it was a good chance to measure herself against her future peers.
"We went back and forth by text when she was out in Vegas," Frese said. "And one of the texts was about how she got to guard Tamika Catchings, someone she had always looked up to.
"And I'm telling you, I've seen a different level of focus from her defensively since she's come back. It opened her eyes. When she commits herself to something, she commits. She knows she's going to have to make that next transition and can be working on some of those things this last college season."
Whatever Thomas does to improve, it will just add to her already glittery legacy at Maryland. The 6-foot-2 forward out of Harrisburg, Pa., has been the ACC Player of the Year the past two seasons and is favored to win that honor again.
She'll have competition, especially from the likes of Duke's Chelsea Gray and ACC newcomer Kayla McBride of Notre Dame. But whether Thomas picks up that award one more time, her place in Maryland lore is secure.
"By the time it's all said and done, Alyssa could go down as probably the best player to come through Maryland women's basketball," Frese said, "which, with the All-Americans and professional players we've had, says a lot. I don't think anyone has been asked to do more when you talk about her three years, with her versatility."
We won't have a debate here about the top Terrapin of all time; the likes of Vicky Bullett, Deanna Tate and Crystal Langhorne are in that mix too, while Thomas still has another year to play. But there's no doubt that Thomas is already one of the very best, and she's still adding to her résumé.
Ask Thomas what improvements she wants from herself this season and she's very concise: "Just being a consistent shooter and extending my range, and being a better defender."
Then again, Thomas doesn't exactly deliver soliloquies on any topic. Mention that Thomas is kind of the strong, silent type and Frese smiles.
"What you see is what you get in terms of how humble and quiet she is," Frese said. "Internally at peace. It's gratifying to see how her leadership has evolved. That was something that wasn't comfortable for her, but now it's become pretty natural."
Last season, Thomas was pushed in that regard, as the Terps needed so much from her with several players injured. That included projected starting guards Brene Moseley and Laurin Mincy, who both suffered knee injuries.
The Terps had so much go wrong injury-wise, you might guess Thomas had some really low moments wondering how to deal with it. But that's not her personality. Instead, she became even more determined.
"I think in the beginning of the season I struggled with it more, trying to get a feel for what I had to do," Thomas said. "But once I got comfortable, I really never felt the weight or the pressure. I just played basketball.
"You couldn't get down. You wanted to play that much harder for your teammates who were hurt, because they didn't have the opportunity to be out on the court after they'd worked so hard all summer."
Thomas averaged 18.8 points and 10.3 rebounds last season, which ended with a 76-50 Sweet 16 loss to eventual national champion Connecticut. Thomas also had a career-best 181 assists. She was not just Maryland's best scorer, but the top playmaker as well.
She might not have to do quite so much this season, with the Terps being 14 players strong and all healthy. Yet even if Thomas' stats do go down a little, Frese thinks she has already shown she'll be an even better overall player.
"She's always constantly in the gym and working on her range," Frese said. "What I'm most proud of, though, is that leadership. With all the depth we have now, she's being patient and really communicative with the other players. And with her power, skill set, versatility and the way she can move around the floor, it's truly remarkable."