Last season, Maryland entered the Pac-12 Challenge with a 7-2 record, riding high after a strong start. In 2015, the Terps entered the same tournament at 10-1.
But each season, the final tournament before entering Big Ten play has derailed the Terps. Maryland's lone win in the 2016 competition came against Oklahoma; the year before that, the Terps were swept. They've finished each of the last two seasons with a losing record overall.
This year, entering the same tournament — which is now called the Maryland Challenge — coach Steve Aird's squad is 9-0 with a shutdown defense. While the Terps have gone on losing streaks following the competition in the past, they believe their talented underclassmen put them in a better place for this matchup.
But Maryland still faces a daunting test, facing No. 7 Washington, No. 18 USC and Oklahoma on the Xfinity Center main floor. It's an opportunity to display how far Aird has taken his program — and also how far it still needs to develop.
"These teams do the best job preparing us to see what the Big Ten is going to have in store for us," associate head coach Adam Hughes said. "And you will see teams [in the Big Ten] play a little bit like USC — Minnesota is incredibly fast. So, it's a good example of what some of the better teams in the conference will look like."
USC and Washington are annual title contenders. The Trojans haven't missed postseason play since 1990, while the Huskies have been in the NCAA tournament since 2002. Maryland is in a different position.
Aird's team hasn't made the NCAA tournament since 2005, and it's still building toward becoming a Big Ten contender. But a win against a top-ranked team could prove how far the Terps have come since their middling days in the ACC.
"What we want them to understand is that they belong," Hughes said. "They have to understand what it's going to take, and I think they do belong. So, they just need to believe it themselves."
Following the loss-heavy weekend series, the Terps faced losing stretches into deep October each of the last three years as the conference schedule began. This year, the Terps will rely on inexperienced players to keep their winning streak alive against their first real test of the season. Maryland's young talent stems from its past two recruiting classes, both of which PrepVolleyball ranked in the top 25.
"When we first got here, Coach Aird wanted to make sure we were going to play a really tough conference schedule and an out-of-conference schedule," Hughes said. "He asked a bunch of our recruits, 'Who do you want to play? You want to play some of the smaller schools, or some mid-majors? Or do you want to go after some of the best teams in the country?'"
As the Terps stockpile top-level recruits — Aird has commitments lined up through 2020 — Maryland won't be the minnow in the tournament for much longer. Some of the Terps' best players entered as top recruits, such as freshman opposite/outsider hitter Samantha Drechsel, freshman outside hitter Erika Pritchard and sophomore outside hitter Gia Milana.
Middle blocker Hailey Murray feels there's a wide gap between bad teams and good teams, but Maryland is working toward the latter.
"Since we're so young," Drechsel said, "we kind of have to grow up fast to get to where we want to be."