- Kate Fagan, Columnist, espnW.com
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COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Alyssa Thomas is essentially unstoppable when inside the "kill zone."
The "kill zone" is where Thomas catches anywhere around the elbow or closer, where she is basically unguardable because she combines power (after Sunday's practice, she took a running start and easily grabbed the rim with her dominant left hand) with finesse. Defenders are forced to honor her midrange jumper, but they're also incapable of stopping her dribble drive to the hoop.
Really, the only area on the floor where Thomas isn't a threat is from beyond the arc. And when the Terps play Louisville in the second round of the NCAA tournament Monday night (ESPN2 and ESPN3, 7:10 p.m. ET), you'll rarely see Thomas outside the 3-point line. She might be forced there, but she doesn't often go voluntarily. The Cardinals' defensive game plan will almost certainly encourage defenders to deny Thomas past the 3-point line, outside of her "kill zone," and into much less comfortable territory.
This year's tournament might be the last time Thomas has an "uncomfortable territory" on the floor. Maryland's 6-foot-2 sophomore forward isn't the kind of player who does things halfway, so it's just a little too early for her to uncork from long distance; but, behind the scenes, she's expanding her game for future unveiling.
Maryland assistant coach David Adkins has already rebuilt Thomas' shot so that she's effective from midrange. Now, before and after practice, in the hours when the cameras are off, the pair is working on adding a more consistent release from long range.
"Oh, yeah," Thomas said. "That's definitely coming."
So the ACC Player of the Year, a nose-to-the-grindstone, hyper-competitive basketball junkie, is a few months of summer gym time away from adding another dimension to her game: the 3-pointer. This season, she's shooting only 26.9 percent from long range, with only seven makes. Thomas' outside stroke might be the only weakness in an otherwise dominant offensive game: she averages 17.4 points on 46.2 percent shooting from the floor (she also averages 8.1 rebounds).
When Maryland head coach Brenda Frese signed Thomas out of Pennsylvania's Central Dauphin High School, she knew she was sneaking one past her coaching colleagues. It's not that Thomas went unrecruited (she chose Maryland over Penn State and Notre Dame), it's just that Frese had an inkling she was signing an amazing player.
And so, as the No. 2-seeded Terps attempt to defeat seventh-seeded Louisville on Monday to advance to the Sweet 16, it'll be Thomas' name at the top of the Cardinals' scouting report.
When Thomas arrived on campus as a freshman, her shot needed re-working. She tended to swing the ball from her right knee into her shooting pocket (she's left-handed), which slowed her release and allowed defenders to slap the ball away. She also twisted her left hand so it wasn't quite in line with her feet, knees and elbows, giving her ball a funky side spin en route to the rim. Adkins, who has worked with NBA star Kevin Durant and a half-dozen other pros, forced Thomas to eliminate the swinging motion to her right knee and reinforced the correct alignment of her left palm.
The pair spent hours together. The result? Thomas (and Adkins) is now confident of any shot she takes from 15 feet or closer. Coupled with her natural ability to get to the rim and finish, she's become one of the nation's most effective scorers. And Frese isn't a fool. She runs a healthy amount of sets designed to put Thomas in the "kill zone," including one play where Thomas collects a handoff at the elbow with the goal of turning the corner and bulldozing her way to the basket.
Thomas in motion is like a pickup truck on the highway: they're both difficult to slow. But if Louisville has one thing going for it Monday night, it's a history and familiarity with Maryland. Cardinals coach Jeff Walz spent six seasons on Frese's staff, both at the University of Minnesota and Maryland. The two teams also met in the 2009 NCAA tournament, where Louisville defeated Maryland to earn a trip to the Final Four.
"From both of our ends, we know each other's philosophies," said Frese, who added that she does not keep in touch with her former top assistant. "We even have some of the same play calls."
Frese said it will be crucial for each team to "junk it up" so the opposing offense can't find a rhythm. Walz said he has no particular attachment to any offense or defense, and he's fully prepared to go man-to-man or zone or triangle-and-two or even "a 5-2" if he had to. He was kidding, of course, but the sentiment was true: he's going to have his Cardinals prepared to do anything to slow Thomas and the Terps.
"We're going to have to play as well as we have all year to even have a chance to win," Walz said.
Maryland's effectiveness starts with Thomas. It's why Frese actively designs and calls plays for the forward. Thomas missed only one game this season because of a sprained left thumb, and the Terps ended up losing at home to unranked Virginia Tech 75-69.
"She might be the most competitive player I've ever coached, and I've coached a lot of competitive players," Frese said.
As Monday night's game begins, watch as Thomas works her "kill zone." Watch as she finishes with either hand, moving on a direct line to the rim. Watch as she adds touch to a floater and squares evenly on a midrange jumper.
And know she's about to become even better.
15dBonnie D. Ford