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In resurgent season, Terps see return of fans, sponsors and 'buzz'

Maryland guard Melo Trimble low-fives fans at Xfinity Center after hitting a 3-pointer against Michigan State in the Terps' Jan. 17 win.
Maryland guard Melo Trimble low-fives fans at Xfinity Center after hitting a 3-pointer against Michigan State in the Terps' Jan. 17 win. (Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

Matt and Kathy Donnelly sat in the terminal at Port Columbus International Airport on Friday morning with other Maryland men's basketball fans waiting for their flight back to Baltimore, their minds and conversation still fixated on what had transpired the night before.

Watching your favorite team lose at home is one thing; traveling to the frigid Midwest to watch Ohio State hand the No. 16 Terps (18-4) their worst defeat of the season — and one of the worst in coach Mark Turgeon's four seasons in College Park — takes the disappointment to another level.

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The Donnellys, who live in Severn and have been season-ticket holders for the past eight years, had enjoyed one of the best starts in program history. Yet after Thursday's 80-56 demolition, Matt Donnelly seemed to have tempered his expectations, at least temporarily.

"We're much more excited this year, but now, all of a sudden, is it a false sense of excitement? Now I'm worried," said Donnelly, who grew up as a Terps fan in Northern Virginia. "But I'm much more excited than in years past because of the level of talent that's coming."

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The difference between Thursday's loss to the Buckeyes and the 16-point defeat in Columbus during last season's ACC-Big Ten Challenge is easy to discern. Though Donnelly was "devastated" by the second straight road blowout in Big Ten Conference play, "last year, you expected [to lose at Ohio State]. This year, I don't."

Turgeon acknowledged last week that the Terps' 17-2 start had "exceeded everyone's expectations" and created "quite a buzz" around the program, from the recruits and fans now paying attention to the businesses wanting to be a part of it.

Earlier this month, Bob Stone, the father of Diamond Stone, a 6-foot-11 senior from Milwaukee rated as one of the nation's top centers, told InsideMDSports.com that Maryland's strong play "shut up a lot of people who questioned why they were on our list" of schools under consideration.

On Monday, the day after the Terps' wild win over Northwestern, Anthony Cowan Jr., a four-star point guard prospect at St. John's College High in Washington, committed orally to Turgeon.

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Though he is prohibited from commenting publicly on unsigned recruits, Turgeon said Friday: "We are able to recruit at the highest level at the University of Maryland. When [high school] coaches and recruits see the progression in our system and watch the team and individual players achieve success, there is a genuine excitement to be a part of our program."

Maryland's first four Big Ten home games, all of which came over the university's winter semester, drew an average announced attendance of 15,068 at the 17,950-seat Xfinity Center. That includes the season's first sellout, a Jan. 17 win over perennial league power Michigan State. Last season, an average of 14,542 fans came out for the first four Atlantic Coast Conference home games, one of which was held after students had returned for the spring semester.

Carrie Blankenship, Maryland's associate athletic director for marketing, said Friday that the Terps' move to the Big Ten and more competitive team have increased interest in games, particularly among students.

"When the students show up, it seems like a completely different environment," Blankenship said. "We're seeing an excitement in them that we probably haven't seen since at least 2010," when a Greivis Vasquez-led team tied Duke for the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title.

Given that the Terps have not been to the NCAA tournament since then, "We're kind of teaching [the students] what Maryland basketball is all about, and what it's supposed to feel like."

Bryan Farrell, a junior from Andover, Mass., has sensed a different level of fan interest since the Terps joined the Big Ten last summer. It started during a football season that included road wins at Michigan and Penn State — Maryland's first-ever victory in Happy Valley — and continued with basketball.

"I think for a lot of the alumni and people who have been longtime fans of the program, I think a lot of them are still kind of hurt" by leaving the ACC, Farrell said. "From the student perspective, the move to the Big Ten has been absolutely incredible.

"A lot of students here have friends at Rutgers, they have friends at Penn State, so from a football perspective, those were huge games for us, because even the student body here has friends that go to those schools. A lot of us don't have friends who go to Duke."

Once only tepid in their excitement over Turgeon's team, many fans started paying attention after the Nov. 25 win over No. 15 Iowa State, said Farrell, a member of The Pride, a newly formed fan group whose membership is up to about 3,500 students, according to Blankenship.

"I think the students are a lot more excited about this team because we haven't been ranked so high in so long," Farrell said.

The success of the Terps, who have been in the Associated Press' Top 25 since Dec. 1, also has helped attract corporate dollars.

Jack Young, general manager of Maryland Sports Properties, said the university-run marketing and media-rights partner has added four new sponsorship packages for the remainder of the season; it had just one all of last season.

MSP also has sold out its suites at Xfinity Center for the games against Michigan State, Penn State and Wisconsin, and "anticipates sellouts for Michigan and Nebraska," Young said. A year ago, the suites were sold out for only the game against Syracuse.

"We heard a lot of initial push-back, losing that Duke game and some of the traditional rivalries [in the ACC], but success and playing some of these historical programs [in the Big Ten] has made that go away a lot quicker than I had planned," Young said.

Yet for many Maryland supporters, even those who witnessed Gary Williams win a national championship after 12 trying seasons in College Park, there is always a sense of impending doom.

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It was there with Matt Donnelly and the rest of the Maryland fans sitting hundreds of miles away from home in Columbus on Friday morning.

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"I'm really curious to see what kind of crowd we have Wednesday night [against Penn State] because of this loss," he said. "Hopefully, people haven't jumped off the bandwagon yet."

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