COLLEGE PARK — Maryland's home-court dominance began two days after Christmas in 2014.
Nearly 13,000 fans showed up at Xfinity Center to watch the vastly improved and recently ranked Terps defeat Oakland. When Maryland returned from its Big Ten Conference debutafter beating perennial power Michigan State in double overtime, the crowd for the first conference home game against Minnesota was nearly 16,000.
The crowds grew to capacity for a return game with the Spartans in late January and for nearly every Big Ten game since.
When No. 3 Iowa (16-3, 7-0 Big Ten) plays at No. 8 Maryland (17-3, 6-2) in the first meeting of top-10 men's programs on campus since Xfinity Center opened (as Comcast Center) in 2002-03, the home-court environment will seemingly be as big an advantage to Mark Turgeon's program as Comcast Center and Cole Field House were to many teams over the nearly 40 years combined that Gary Williams and Lefty Driesell coached the Terps.
In finishing second to Wisconsin last season with a 14-4 Big Ten record, the Terps were 9-0 at home. Maryland is 4-0 at home in the league this season — 11-0 overall at Xfinity Center — and needed help from the crowd to win closer-than-expected games against Northwestern in overtime last week and Penn State last month.
Turgeon acknowledged after his team's 74-65 loss at Michigan State on Saturday how much the crowd must have helped the Spartans break a rare three-game losing streak. He's hoping the presence of the Maryland students for the first time since Big Ten play began last month will play a big role.
"It's so hard to win in college basketball; you play so many games," Turgeon said Wednesday. "So, when you can play a home game and it's going to be packed — hopefully, they can get some of the snow removed on some of the roads leading into here so guys can be on time tomorrow night and our students are back for the first time — we're looking forward to that. It can make a huge impact on the game."
Tonight's game against the Hawkeyes figures to be the Terps' most difficult of the season to date. And the most important.
With a 24-game home winning streak that dates to a loss to Virginia in last season's ACC-Big Ten Challenge, Maryland needs to continue holding serve at home. A victory over Iowa — after Indiana's first league loss Tuesday at Wisconsin — would help the Terps get back into the hunt for the regular-season league championship.
"I'll never say this early in the year it's a must-win," Turgeon said. "We'll be fired up to play. We'll be prepared to play. It's a great opportunity for us. We're playing a great team that's playing as well as anybody in the country. … We prepare for every game like it's a must-win. We try to win every game. But I don't think we're desperate in any stretch of the imagination."
Being in a game of this magnitude, and having an enthusiastic home crowd that helped the Terps beat No. 5 Wisconsin here last year and No. 5 Virginia in Maryland's last Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season game two years ago, has been a long time in the making.
When Turgeon succeeded Williams in 2011, the Terps were only one season removed from making the NCAA tournament, but Comcast Center had lost much of the energy from its early days after Cole Field House closed in 2002.
Except for games against Duke and North Carolina, the arena rarely was completely filled. By Maryland's last season in the ACC in 2013-14, a combination of a mediocre product (17-15) and the absence of the Blue Devils and Tar Heels from the home schedule dropped the average attendance to 12,557.
Though the number ranked fourth in the ACC that year, it would have been 10th in the Big Ten. Given the capacity of Xfinity Center (17,950) as the largest by a few hundred seats over Indiana's Assembly Hall (17,472) and Wisconsin's Kohl Center (17,230), the Terps should lead the Big Ten in attendance this season.
Sophomore guard Melo Trimble said Wednesday that the team often feeds off the crowd's energy.
"When you're home you expect everyone to be for you, when you're away, you expect everyone to be against you and say whatever to throw you off your game. When you're home, your fans give you a lot of confidence," he said.
Asked how the noise affects the game, Trimble said: "I'm not sure. When you play away, they're making noise so you can't really hear the offensive calls and stuff like that. When you're home, the fans are more quiet and they get excited when you do any kind of move or something special."
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, whose Hawkeyes have already won at Michigan State (76-59) and at Purdue (70-63) among their four wins in five road games this season, said winning on the road is much more difficult than most imagine.
"You feel like you've overcome a lot, accomplished a lot, because you really have to be together on the floor and you have to hold on to the game plan because there is so much noise and you've got to really," McCaffery said Tuesday during his news conference in Iowa City.
"It's hard to communicate sometimes, so you have to really communicate with each other and you have to pull each other over and you have to help and support one another on the floor. So I think the players feel a little bit differently when they get a 'W' in a situation like that."
Williams, a Hall of Fame coach, said that with the unbalanced schedules leagues such as the Big Ten and the ACC have gone to in recent years, winning at home is even more important than before.
Not having to play the tougher teams both at home and on the road each year "really can change the league," Williams said. "We also used to have a rotation when I was in the Big Ten, and now that changes every year because of television. If you're a good team, you look at your home schedule and say, 'We've got to win home games.' You can get a bad deal one year and play the best teams on the road."