One year ago, a young Maryland men’s basketball team loaded the bus and drove to New York, where the bright lights of a newly built arena and rap star Jay-Z awaited. There, in Brooklyn at the Barclays Center, the Terrapins met third-ranked Kentucky, another squad filled with fresh-faced teenagers, albeit ones with five stars in their recruiting profiles.
The end result, a 72-69 loss that came down to the final play, surprised many who thought the Wildcats would run away with the game. Maryland played sloppily, shooting just 15.8 percent on three-pointers and 33.3 percent from the field. Six players who had never before worn a Maryland uniform saw minutes.
“I don’t think a lot of guys brought their A game,” center Shaquille Cleare said. “I think a lot of guys just gave in early.”
This week, Maryland again packed its bags for Brooklyn, this time to face 19th-ranked Connecticut on Friday evening at the same arena. Plenty has happened since its opener last season. Players have matured. New faces have arrived. And altogether, the Terps feel like they have something to prove.
“This year we have to get a win in the Barclays because we didn’t win last year,” Cleare said. “The team isn’t feeling any pressure. We’re just going to go there and play Maryland basketball. … We just got to turn on the lights in Barclays. We were a little dim last year.”
Said swingman Jake Layman: “We feel like we owe the Barcalys Center one, like we have to come in there with all the energy in the world and we have to get this win.”
The atmosphere was electric last season, with many fans turning out to see a defending-champion Kentucky squad that ultimately fizzled out against Robert Morris in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament. But the Wildcats were also young, with freshmen like Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein anchoring the rotation. This year, the Huskies enter with a seasoned rotation, scrappy guards Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier leading the charge.
“Last year’s game, we were both young,” Coach Mark Turgeon said. “One time they’d have four guys, then run back on defense and get an easy layup. I think you’ll see a much higher-quality basketball game, even it felt like it because the atmosphere so great, I think the play should be better tomorrow night across the board. Both teams are more mature. I look back at least year and shake my head that we were able to get 25 wins with such a young squad.”
After transferring from Michigan in the summer of 2012, Maryland forward Evan Smotrycz was barred, per NCAA rules, from team road trips last season. So he watched the opener from Comcast Center inside the players’ lounge. But his eligibility, coupled with the maturation of now-sophomores like Layman, Cleare and Charles Mitchell, gives Maryland confidence that it can produce a much cleaner effort this time around.
“I thought we looked really young at first,” Smotrycz said. “Guys were really excited and just putting shots off the backboard. We calmed down eventually. I think we’re a little more mature now, guys have played enough big games to come out more composed. Hopefully that happens.”