Somewhere between the lead changes and momentum shifts, the clutch three-pointers and impossible responses, the 225 credentialed media members and live SportsCenter hits, the students who arrived several hours early and barely used their seats, and the waves of sound that made it impossible to hear a referee’s whistle, a thought occurred to me: maybe Maryland and Georgetown should play more often.
As in, every year. Starting now.
It took more than two decades for the Terps and Hoyas to finally schedule a regular season game in this area; their two-year home-and-home plan was more playful tease than permanent solution. Then came the first installment of that series: two thrilling hours in front of a sellout crowd, featuring 10 ties, nine lead changes, and one of the best environments you’ll ever find at a local college event.
The final score was Maryland 75, Georgetown 71, but the experience will be remembered just as much as the result.
“Today was definitely good for college basketball; it was great for basketball in this area,” Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon said. “This is a game that we’ll be talking about for a while.”
Maryland Athletic Director Kevin Anderson said Tuesday night that the response from fans has been “electric,” that “this is what they’ve wanted.” Which means the series has to continue past 2016, correct?
“My hope is after this year and next year, it’s really a no-brainer,” Anderson said, “and the discussion will be how long [of a deal] and how are we going to put it together.”
It makes too much sense to do anything else. The blasts of energy and clutch play from both teams had ex-Maryland players comparing the atmosphere to Duke games and virtually pleading for this long-dormant series to continue.
“If you weren’t convinced that this should be a longtime rivalry, you had to be convinced tonight,” Maryland great Walt Williams said just after midnight. “I mean, it’s still electric here, and it’s an hour after the game. … You’ve got to make this happen, man. It’s got to keep going.”
Other metro areas have figured out that local rivalries pay, and not just Philadelphia’s Big Five. Xavier and Cincinnati have played each other at least once every season since World War II. This will be the 31st straight season Marquette and Wisconsin play during the regular season. Louisville and Kentucky have met at least once every year since 1983. Indiana, Notre Dame, Butler and Purdue created the Crossroads Classic in 2011; the initial two-year contract has already been extended three times and now runs through 2019.
You wouldn’t want to see Maryland and Georgetown meet again next year? Or next week? Anyone got an empty gym Wednesday night?
“I just don’t think there’s a downside to it,” said George Washington Coach Mike Lonergan, who attended Tuesday’s game as a fan, the night after his school knocked off Virginia in another local bout. (Maryland and Georgetown should also play his Colonials, but that’s an argument for another day.)
“My friends, whether they’re Georgetown fans or Maryland fans, they’re all talking about this game,” Lonergan went on. “It creates so much interest. Even for us it’s good, because it gets people interested” in the sport.
Which is the crucial point. The NCAA tournament’s greatness is also its biggest flaw, with so many fans now convinced the college basketball season starts in February or March. If your sport is sometimes hidden before the holidays, the solution isn’t to avoid the most compelling possible matchups — and for what, spite? Fear? Stubbornness? This was college basketball at its best, no matter what the calendar says. We need more of that, not less.
“If I could change one thing about college basketball right now it would be games like Georgetown and Maryland should be as important as any game you play all year,” said Gary Williams, one of the many Maryland luminaries in the building Tuesday night. “And that’s true for North Carolina playing Kentucky, or for Duke playing Michigan State. I don’t care what month you play them in; they’re great college basketball games. And true college basketball fans want these games. … You want fans there the whole season; you don’t just want them there for three weeks in March.”
This feels especially true after the earthquakes that have so dramatically shaken college sports in recent years. Geographic footprints and television integration plans are great for the bottom line, but it’s hard to plan a pep rally over budget lines. And the consequence, at least in the short term, has left both Maryland and Georgetown short a few rivals.
You think Verizon Center might not be a bit more bustling for a nonconference meeting with Maryland than, say, a classic Big East battle with Creighton? You think Xfinity Center will be as charged as it was Tuesday night when, say, longtime Terrapins antagonist Nebraska comes to town?
If the risk is that you might sometimes lose, then Georgetown should stop scheduling Radford at home. It’s true that Georgetown’s “home” game in the series could feel anything but, with Terps fans likely to overtake Verizon Center, but the Hoyas very nearly won on Tuesday, despite 17,000 screaming Maryland fans.
“It’s important to play these games,” Georgetown Coach John Thompson III said. “As bad as we feel right now, hopefully in the long run this will help us out. I do think it’s important for the sport — not that we’re doing this for the good of the sport, because it’s good for Georgetown, [too].”
And the schools have such similar profiles that competition shouldn’t be an issue. Georgetown has five NCAA tournament appearances and two wins since their last meeting in 2008, while Maryland has three and three. Both have been to Final Fours. Both have won a national title. Tuesday’s game couldn’t have been more even; only Maryland’s massive disparity in free throws stood out.
George Mason assistant Duane Simpkins — the hero the last time these teams played a local regular season game, back in 1993 — talked this week about how unfortgettable games like this add texture to a program, making it more than just an annual collection of changing faces. Would he have given 12 interviews in recent weeks had he once hit a game-winner against, say, Northern Iowa?
“There was a generation or two that was lost, of local kids that had no remembrance of that [rivalry],” Simpkins said. “In order to have that team pride, that program pride, you’ve got to have something that really resonates.”
This is a rivalry that resonates. Tuesday attracted about three times as many media members as a typical Maryland nonconference game in November, leaving some without seats. Turgeon at different times said the school could have sold 50,000, 60,000 or 100,000 tickets for the game. ESPN’s “SportsCenter” broadcasted live from College Park, and both local sports radio stations ran segments throughout the day.
“I can already see by what’s going on in this room how big this game is, for both teams, both schools,” Terps legend Joe Smith told a crowd of reporters before tip-off. “This is a game that I think the city welcomes, everybody welcomes, both schools welcome. And I think it’s a game that should happen more frequently.”
Of course it should. What should happen, though, often doesn’t matter in college sports. People associated with the programs will cite things like scheduling demands and conference responsibilities. It’s not that easy, they’ll say.
Here’s a starting point: It’s better for both schools to play this game than not. So find a way to make it work.