Terps prepare for final ACC regular season game with mixed emotions

The Maryland marketing department was hard at work Saturday afternoon, scattered throughout the Comcast Center aisles, folding newspapers over chairs. Down the wall, that steep section for students behind the far baseline, they had placed red and white pieces of paper. Arranged together, the papers displayed a number: 61.

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Over six decades have passed since the ACC was founded, with Maryland among the charter members, and for the men’s basketball team its tenure in the league will soon come to a close. On Sunday, the Terrapins will play their final regular season ACC game, hosting No. 5 Virginia, and the commemoration had already begun as they practiced for the big moment.

“I thought it was pretty cool,” guard Dez Wells said, his eyes gazing at the wall. “I thought it was a pretty cool. Sixty-one years is a long time. For us to part ways with the ACC is bittersweet, but it’s always good basketball ahead. I’m just excited for this game tomorrow, ready to get the win.”

Given Maryland’s precarious position, on the bubble of the National Invitational Tournament with zero top 50 RPI wins to its name, the players have been reconciling the tendency for reflection with the tremendous task ahead. After all, they had practiced while the building was set up, filled with newspapers saying “61 years” and other reminders of the past.

“Our guys know,” Coach Mark Turgeon said. “People have been talking about it. Of course they’re on social media all the time, so they know what’s going on. They also understand we’re playing Virginia who’s really, really good, fifth in the country, has a chance to be a number one seed in the NCAA tournament. Our guys are excited about that.”

Virginia arrives on a 13-game winning streak but hasn’t played since March 1, when it clinched the ACC regular season title with a 75-56 rout of Syracuse. The Cavs currently own a six-game winning streak against the Terps, too, including an eight-point win at John Paul Jones Arena in mid-February.

But everything about Sunday, at least in the lead-up, will come flecked with history. Legendary coaches Lefty Driesell and Gary Williams will sign autographs before the game. Memories will be shared and videos played. The conference tournament still lurks next week, but no more ACC games will be held at Comcast Center, or in College Park altogether. When July 1 rolls around, the program and university will plow ahead, full steam, into the Big Ten.

“I know everyone kind of has mixed feelings about it,” forward Evan Smotrycz said. “Like I said, we’re just trying to get a win against a really good team. If we could beat them in the last ACC home game, that would be huge.”

“It means a lot to us,” Wells said. “The legacy of the ACC and Maryland together, it means everything. That’s one of the reasons why I came here. It means everything to us, to the fan base, to the coaches, to Maryland basketball, to Coach Turgeon. We want to go out with a bang.”

Sunday also marks the annual Senior Day festivities, though this, too, has become an afterthought. Only one player will be honored, and John Auslander has logged all of 19 minutes this season, the majority of his contributions coming in a behind-the-scenes leadership role.

Throughout his coaching career, Turgeon couldn’t remember another season when he had so few seniors playing so few minutes. Last year, James Padgett and Logan Aronhalt were consistent members of the rotation and started on Senior Day. This season, Turgeon wasn’t sure what to do with Auslander besides step near midcourt before the game, offer a handshake and maybe a hug.

Asked about his emotions entering such a historic game, Turgeon thought for a moment. Despite coming within two points of Duke and Syracuse, and losing in double overtime to Clemson, the Terps have still lost four of six games. Their NCAA tournament hopes, barring an ACC tournament title, were deflated along the way. So a slight smirk crossed Turgeon’s face, as if all the ACC history didn’t matter right now, as if there would be time for reflection when it’s all over.

“My emotions?” he asked. “I just hope we play well. That’s really what I want.”

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.
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