On the eve of his 22nd birthday, a chilly night in February, Ryan Tommins showed up at Comcast Center to wait in line. He came after sundown with his friends, the same group of seniors who have been attending Maryland men’s basketball games together for four years. It was the night before the biggest home game of the season, against then-No. 4 Syracuse, and die-hards like Tommins are always early.
By daylight, the crowd had grown. Terrapins Coach Mark Turgeon arrived around noon to pass out McDonald’s cheeseburgers. Tommins’s girlfriend had bought him a birthday cake, too, so Turgeon held it and posed for a picture. “It was nice to mix up the monotony of waiting,” Tommins said.
Such scenes have become rare over the past four years in College Park, where students once regularly camped out to watch a Maryland basketball program that reached the Final Four in 2001, won the national championship in 2002 and made the NCAA tournament in most of the other years under legendary coach Gary Williams. Now, barring a run to the ACC tournament title this week, the Terrapins will miss college basketball’s marquee event for a fourth straight season, and this year’s seniors will become the first class to graduate without witnessing an NCAA tournament appearance in 21 years.
“The program has always been a part of March Madness,” said Scott Block, a senior from Howard County who has been close friends with Tommins since freshman year. “At least, it was.”
The program’s recent stasis has coincided with a sharp decline in overall attendance for a financially troubled athletic department that is banking on basketball ticket receipts to carry it through choppy monetary waters. Maryland is averaging 12,198 fans per game this season, down 32 percent since the 2007-08 season, when the Terrapins maxed out Comcast Center’s capacity with 17,950 packing the arena on a nightly basis. The school also says student attendance has dropped by roughly 375 over the past year.
Maryland’s athletic department has announced a sellout for Sunday’s game against No. 5 Virginia, the Terrapins’ final home game as an ACC team before they leave for the Big Ten starting next season. But it will be only the seventh sellout for an ACC game since Turgeon arrived in 2010-11. All 10 of the smallest crowds ever to watch an ACC men’s game at Comcast Center have come during his three-year tenure. Five of them have come this season as the Terrapins have struggled to a 16-14 record. The smallest such crowd was Tuesday night, when only 10,517 saw Maryland defeat Virginia Tech.
Five years ago, when the class of 2014 was still in high school, the Terps were co-ACC regular season champions and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament. Since then, 121 teams have reached the NCAA tournament, including 10 of 15 current ACC members and nine of 12 schools in the Big Ten. Maryland hasn’t been one of them.
“I wasn’t really expecting that when I came in as a freshman,” said Marty Schwartz, a senior from Potomac who always sits in Section 114, Row A, Seat 12 because his favorite Maryland player is Drew Nicholas, who wore jersey No. 12.
“It was such a foregone conclusion,” said Jack Trimble, a senior from New Jersey who has missed only a handful of home games during his four years. “I didn’t even think about it.”
Back then, Maryland’s most ardent student fans could count on booking travel every March to some opening-round destination. Schwartz and his classmates grew up during the early 2000s, when the Terps were considered a national powerhouse. They tracked games in the computer lab during middle school and unwrapped tickets for the holidays. They remember looking at the student sections at Cole Field House and Comcast Center, loyal and raucous and profane, and dreaming of joining along.
“A lot of people come to see victories,” said Cory Frontin, a senior from Bowie who is a member of a fan group called the “Turgeonites” whose members dress up like Turgeon on game days. “I’m there to watch Maryland basketball, not to watch Maryland basketball win necessarily. That’s not to say I won’t enjoy it. But we’re not going to win every single thing every year.”
Around 3 a.m. the night before the Syracuse game, Tommins and some friends left to fetch food. They walked along Baltimore Avenue, the same block that had hosted so many postgame celebrations over past seasons, and thought about the past four years.
Back in middle school, when they would fill out their NCAA tournament brackets and advance the Terps further than they probably deserved, they never could have envisioned attending Maryland and missing the NCAA tournament. This season, barring a conference title, Maryland will reach either the National Invitational Tournament for the second straight year or miss the postseason entirely.
But as Tommins recalled someone saying that night, “Even four years with mediocre outcomes, it still is a lot of fun.”
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