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Division II Bowie State, filled with Maryland natives, set to face No. 2 Terps

Justin Beck, a Calvert Hall graduate from Ellicott City, is a senior at Bowie State.
Justin Beck, a Calvert Hall graduate from Ellicott City, is a senior at Bowie State. (Bowie State athletics)

BOWIE — One December night in 2011, Nick Saban visited Gilman on a recruiting trip. Cal Ripken Jr. happened to be there, too. For a few hours, they ended up sitting together in the Finney Athletic Center's bleachers, the Alabama football coach and Orioles Hall of Famer taking in, of all things, a boys basketball game.

Saban was there to see Cyrus Jones, a shooting guard for the Greyhounds and, less than a month later, a Crimson Tide football commit. Ripken was rooting for one of Jones' teammates against Calvert Hall: his son Ryan. The two seniors combined for 44 points in a 77-68 win over the Cardinals.

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Leading Calvert Hall was a senior guard who actually would play basketball in college. Justin Beck scored 22 in defeat, one of the better nights in a high school career that led him to Division II Bowie State.

"I was kind of star-struck," the Ellicott City native recalled of seeing Saban and Ripken. "You're in high school. At that point, you're just focused on big names and stuff like that."

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On Monday morning, Beck sat in a chair in coach Darrell Brooks' office, taking stock of the season after a weekend win pushed the Bulldogs above .500 in Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association play. On Wednesday, Bowie State (13-9) faces Virginia Union, another league rival.

In between, Beck knew, was a 12-mile trip Tuesday to College Park for another star-studded affair. Only on this night, the big names in attendance — Melo Trimble, Diamond Stone, Rasheed Sulaimon — would be playing, not watching from afar.

Oh, and he, a senior starter, would be the one to try to stop them.

"It's probably the only opportunity that these guys are going to get to possibly play against the team that's ranked No. 1 in the country in Division I," Brooks said.

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Maryland (21-3) had to settle for No. 2 in Monday's updated Associated Press rankings, continuing an ascent Brooks seemed to foresee before the start of last season.

After an 89-47 loss in a November 2014 exhibition, Brooks said of the Terps: "I like the parts and I think they're going to be successful this year." The quirks of Big Ten Conference scheduling led to Tuesday's odd reunion.

Although every league team receives two scheduling breaks in conference play, only Maryland chose to use one to host a nonconference game this season. (The team will, however, take the full six days off before its Feb. 27 game at Purdue.)

For Bowie State, the timing could be better. No coach in America would be delighted about having to play a Final Four contender on the road less than 26 hours before another in-conference clash. But this is a so-called guarantee game; each team is sure to leave with something it needs. Brooks said the game "helps us financially a lot."

"Like I said to Coach [Turgeon]: 'If we have to play you guys on a Saturday at 2 and then come home and play somebody in the league at 8, we'll do it,'" he said.

The Bulldogs, with two players taller than 6 feet 7, know they face a tough matchup at Xfinity Center against a team that starts 6-foot-9 Jake Layman at small forward. With a roster of almost entirely Maryland- and Washington-born players, they know what to expect in College Park, even if there is precious little to prepare them for it.

Two seasons ago, Bowie State traveled to Duke for an early season matchup. The Blue Devils rolled, 103-67, but Brooks remembered the pregame scene most vividly. Students were lined up outside Cameron Indoor Stadium an hour and a half before tipoff, and one held a sign in plain view of the players: "Bowie is not a state."

The Bulldogs have heard meaner insults. In a conference game at Shaw early in his Bulldogs tenure, Brooks called a timeout. One row of bleachers closest to the floor served as Bowie State's bench, meaning overeager fans could have interactive experiences with the team's huddles. On that day, one did.

"The guy leans over and goes: 'Coach, that play [stinks],'" Brooks recalled, laughing.

Of the Bulldogs' eight home games at the 2,200-seat A.C. Jordan Arena this season, just two have drawn an announced attendance of at least 1,000. The apparent interest in Tuesday's matchup seems wildly disproportionate to those figures.

Beck said a former childhood teammate now at Johns Hopkins told him he had purchased a ticket and would be wearing a Bowie State T-shirt to the game. A well-meaning professor in an accounting class, meanwhile, advised Beck to watch out for Trimble, "like I don't watch him, either."

Former Randallstown star Ahmaad Wilson, a sophomore guard, expects similar support.

"I literally think everybody — all my friends, all my family — going to be there," he said. He added softly: "I think it's more so to watch them, though."

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