The celebration of the 100th season of Maryland basketball brings it all back, what Maryland can be. When the Terrapins hosted Michigan — A rival? Not really. — this month, Juan Dixon’s voice carried through Xfinity Center.
“Dear Maryland basketball,” the Terps great said in a video recording on the scoreboard. “I’m so proud of what you’ve become.”
But with the Terrapins preparing for this week’s conference tournament in, uh, Chicago, it’s fair to wonder: What has Maryland become?
The Terps find themselves the fifth seed in this week’s Big Ten tournament, and you don’t even have to go back to Dixon’s era to find a time when that sentence would have seemed like nonsense. Fifth seed in the what? They will make the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in Coach Mark Turgeon’s eight seasons, after going 13-7 against a rigorous conference schedule. They’re ranked 21st in the nation. By a lot of measures, the Terrapins are just fine.
“They should be basically what they’re doing this year,” said Steve Blake, the point guard on Dixon’s Maryland teams, the halcyon days in College Park. “They should always be ranked in the top 25. They should be bringing in the best talent year in and year out. I think they have the right coach in place to do that. Hopefully this year will springboard them into a ton more success going forward.”
That’s a genuine, and judicious, assessment from Blake. But here’s the thing: I get a sense from a segment of Maryland’s fan base that the program is trying to find itself again, that it’s something less than it should be. A complex set of circumstances leaves Turgeon’s Terps in this odd place, but that standing is rooted in the knowledge that the program won a national championship, with Dixon and Blake as the backcourt, leaving the impression that the mountain can be climbed again.
Plus, the fact that the Terps will play either Rutgers or Nebraska — Rutgers or Nebraska! — in Chicago and not, say, Miami or Wake Forest in Charlotte is still somehow unsettling. The transition from the ACC to the Big Ten came five seasons ago, yet it’s still somehow in midstream.
So with the essence of March upon us — conference tournament week, followed by the NCAA tournament — whither Maryland?
Start with the first idea: The national championship, won in 2002, represents not just what Maryland aspires to but what it actually can achieve. It came a year after the school’s first Final Four appearance. It ended the program’s ninth straight appearance in the NCAA tournament. Maryland was a regular on the national scene, and this was the natural exclamation point to that run.
“There’s probably three schools — Duke, [North] Carolina, Kansas, used to be UCLA — where it can just happen at those places,” said Gary Williams, the coach of that 2002 team. “For all the other schools, including Maryland — some really great basketball schools — you have to hit it right. You’ve got to get a little lucky in recruiting — guys turn out a little bit better than they’re supposed to. You need to get a great player — a Juan Dixon. And then the administration has to really understand what basketball can do.”
All of that remains possible at Maryland, right? Turgeon has recruited well; his class of six freshmen that makes up an important part of this year’s rotation was ranked seventh in the nation by the analysts at 247 Sports — behind Duke and Kentucky and Kansas, sure, but ahead of North Carolina, Michigan and others. He could well uncover a star worthy of mention in Dixon’s class, though he hasn’t yet. And it’s possible one of his current freshmen — say, Aaron Wiggins or Eric Ayala — will develop into a player significantly better than he was supposed to be, the Chris Wilcox or Drew Nicholas of a Final Four team.
And Maryland’s administration — well, with a football program in transition following tragedy, it had better understand what basketball can do. In terms of publicity. In terms of alumni goodwill. In terms of recruitment — not just of athletes but of students.
But all of that, it seems, is tied into this week’s trip to Chicago, not Charlotte.
When Williams retired and Maryland hired Turgeon in 2011, the former Texas A&M coach was taking a job in the ACC. A fun game to play: Where does the Maryland job rank, nationally, as a coaching gig? It’s a great bar game and results in fun debates. (Better than Arizona? As good as Texas? Keep talking.)
But I can’t shake this thought: Wherever you rank it, the Maryland basketball coaching job isn’t as good in the Big Ten as it was in the ACC. As a founding member of the latter league, Maryland was a basketball school playing in a basketball conference. As a still new member of the Big Ten, it’s a basketball school playing in a football conference. What’s the most attractive home game for a fan on Maryland’s 2018-19 schedule? I’d argue it was the November date against Virginia — a nonconference game.
When I chatted with Williams about all this last week before the Maryland-Michigan game — to be fair, a Big Ten game with an excellent environment inside Xfinity Center — he was quick to point out that the ACC now isn’t what the ACC was. All coaches in any conference lament the loss of the double round-robin — play everyone twice, once home and once away, to determine a true regular season champion. But the school Maryland was going to be guaranteed to play twice annually, had it remained in the ACC, was . . . Pittsburgh?
“We wouldn’t have played Carolina and Duke twice anymore,” Williams said.
Fair enough. The ACC isn’t the ACC. College basketball isn’t college basketball. Change happens, and there’s no point in being eternally wistful.
Still, of those 100 seasons of Maryland basketball, 61 were played in the ACC. Just five have been played in the Big Ten. The former Terps who sat behind one basket at Xfinity Center against Michigan? Save for Melo Trimble, they don’t have memories of playing against Michigan.
Over time, that will change. When current Terps stars Bruno Fernando and Anthony Cowan Jr. return to campus, they will have no memory of playing in the ACC, and the kids in the crowd never will have cheered against Duke.
But we’re not there. Not yet, anyway. Maryland is still a basketball school with a century’s worth of basketball history. If there are 100 more years ahead, it seems certain we’ll look back at this period as a strange one. The Terrapins have moved on. Their history lies somewhere else. And the program, at the moment, feels in between.