As the final seconds ticked off the clock on a conference game in the middle of January, two programs, heading in opposite directions, departed the Kohl Center floor with very different interpretations of success.
For a game that wasn’t supposed to be very close, Wisconsin could take pride in a spirited effort that allowed them to hang tough with one of the best teams in America. But after the opening period, as has been the case since they joined the Big Ten, the game was all Maryland.
Unfortunately for the Badger faithful, this outcome was to be expected as Maryland is not only one of the premier teams in the Big Ten, but also across the country.
Through their first year and a half in the Big Ten, Maryland has already won two Big Ten titles and went undefeated in conference last season. Maryland’s success can be directly credited to head coach Brenda Frese. Since arriving at Maryland in 2003, Frese has led the Terrapins to the NCAA tournament 11 times, including three final fours, and in 2006, won the programs first national title.
“We approach it one game at a time,” Frese said. “We’re just trying to be as consistent as we can … It speaks volumes in terms of the level of tradition that was started many years before me. That standard of excellence that we try to set the bar to at Maryland.”
All this success comes during a time when Wisconsin has made only one NCAA tournament appearance since Frese’s arrival in 2003. Though the majority of this stretch saw the Terrapins and Badgers in separate conferences, Maryland’s move from the top of the ACC to the top of the Big Ten shows how far the Badgers have to climb to achieve similar acclaim.
Frese can attest to the time it takes to build a national title contender.
“I’m on year 14 at Maryland, so it takes time in terms of building recruiting classes and putting them together,” Frese said. “The thing I love about Wisconsin is that they play for 40 minutes. They’re scrappy and they leave it all out there on the court.”
A program on the level of Maryland is what head coach Bobbie Kelsey aspires to build here in Madison. Despite the lack of success in her first few years as coach of Wisconsin, Kelsey knows that tradition and championship-level play aren’t born overnight.
Kelsey can look to her days as a Stanford assistant coach for a blue print of success, and knows that even the top programs in the country were not always enjoying the fruits of their labor.
“Everybody always thinks it’s so easy … It’s not a one-year or a two-year deal,” Kelsey said. “I don’t know exactly how long, but it takes a while. When I was at Stanford, that wasn’t the Stanford of the four years before that. I’ve seen Notre Dame when they weren’t very good and I played UConn when they were terrible.
As is the case with collegiate athletics, the turnaround starts on the recruiting trail.
Luckily for Kelsey, the Badgers have some of the top players committed to the program for next season.
Despite the influx of new talent, Kelsey will look towards this current crop of seniors to set the example for what she expects in a program.
“[The players] are doing the dirty work to get the program to a championship level and then to get those pieces that are going to say, ‘Hey, I see what they’re doing. They’re playing hard and doing the right things,'” Kelsey said.
As Wisconsin moves towards the end of year five of the Kelsey era, it will be interesting to see how much time Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez will give the first-time head coach to rebuild the program.
With each passing game, a post-season birth seems harder to attain, and the days of 20-win seasons and top-three conference finishes, under previous head coach Lisa Stone, seem like a distant memory. While no one expects Maryland-level results, the women’s basketball program needs to step up to the plate and experience some of the success seen by other teams within the athletic department.
“It takes a while to get those players to buy into your vision and believe what you believe,” Kelsey said. “It’s more than just basketball; we want to create a championship culture all across the board, off the court, on the court, in the community, in the classroom. We want something Madison people can be proud of.”