The Maryland basketball team basked in the national glow during its season opener against defending national champion Kentucky in Brooklyn. With rap mogul Jay-Z courtside and sparkling-new Barclays Center stuffed to the rafters on Nov. 9, the game had an undeniable buzz that built throughout the Terrapins’ second-half run, which ultimately fell short in a three-point loss.
The Terrapins haven’t seen such an electric atmosphere since. After Maryland drew less than 9,000 fans to its home opener against Morehead State on Nov. 12, Coach Mark Turgeon made a public plea for greater attendance, imploring fans to watch a team that’s “going to play hard for you.” But even as the Terrapins have surged to a 5-1 record, recent history suggests they shouldn’t expect a packed, partisan house for their remaining marquee nonconference matchup, Sunday’s BB&T Classic matchup against George Mason at Verizon Center.
If Turgeon had his druthers, the Terrapins’ 18th appearance in the BB&T Classic could be their last.
“I’ll sit down with everybody concerned, see if it’s the best thing for us,” Turgeon said Saturday. “A lot of it will determine what kind of crowd we have tomorrow. I don’t want to return the game. It’s hard to get someone to come play us. I want to do what’s best for Maryland basketball. If I have to take a few bad articles to do that, I’ll do that. We’ll cross that bridge once the season’s over.”
Attendance has indeed waned in recent years at the BB&T Classic, which began in 1995 as a two-day tournament that saw Maryland and George Washington play marquee teams such as Michigan State, Connecticut, Kansas and Gonzaga. In 2005, it became a single-day event.
Last season, the Terrapins beat Notre Dame, 78-71, in front of just 10,714 fans, just more than half of the Verizon Center’s 20,282-seat capacity. Even with the local teams playing — George Washington faces Manhattan in the event’s opener on Sunday at 12:15 p.m.— attendance has trended downward in recent seasons, making the event a tough sell for Turgeon and his team.
Since Turgeon assumed the head coaching role, he’s tried to establish more control over Maryland’s schedule. It’s why the Terrapins were able to have Thanksgiving Day off to enjoy family meals, why they have an eight-day gap between games bracketing Christmas and why this young group plays IUPUI on New Year’s Day at 3 p.m.
As Turgeon mentioned, Maryland often has to agree to a return game against its BB&T Classic opponent. The Terrapins lost to Temple in the 2010 event, then had to travel to Philadelphia to play the Owls last season. That game was just four days before Maryland’s home game against Duke, a cramped scheduled that irked Turgeon. Plus, Maryland will play 18 conference games instead of 16 when the ACC adds Syracuse and Pittsburgh next season, giving Turgeon even less flexibility with his nonconference slate and more incentive to abandon ties with the BB&T Classic after one final go-around.
“I want to dictate my games. That’s just me,” Turgeon said. “We had the ACC/Big Ten Challenge [Tuesday’s road win over Northwestern], then this game. I’m looking at other things. I enjoyed the game up in Brooklyn, even though we lost, that was fun, a great environment. If this environment won’t give us that, I can get it somewhere else. We’ll see.”
The Terrapins (5-1) know they have an opportunity to score a résumé-boosting win Sunday afternoon against the Patriots (5-2). By his own admission, Turgeon scheduled a relatively weak nonconference schedule for a young team. After Sunday, bona-fide chances to increase his team’s NCAA tournament credentials in nonconference play will be few and far between.
But on a team that regularly rotates four freshmen and three sophomores, such a schedule can help the Terrapins work out any kinks before ACC play rolls around.
“Being a young team we are, I like the schedule,” point guard Pe’Shon Howard said. “We’re able to work on things. Guys can still have fun. There’s not as much pressure on every game.
“That Kentucky game, there was a lot of pressure and tension on it. Now guys can be kids, be able to live and have fun in the process. The attention on that game, there was a lot of stress going. I’m sure coach got a few more gray hairs. I’m sure I started sprouting some gray hairs in there. Our schedule will be intense, but being the young team we are, we don’t have to be under that scrutiny every day.”