As March Madness looms, Maryland basketball's success reminds supporters of glory years

COLLEGE PARK — It's not hard to pinpoint the moment when Maryland men's basketball fans felt their team's present connect to its glorious past.

The date was Feb. 24. The opponent was mighty Wisconsin. The final score was 59-53, Terps.


A sellout crowd surged onto the court at Xfinity Center to celebrate a team about to crash the national top 10 for the first time in a dozen years.

"It's a scene I'll always cherish," the university's president, Wallace Loh, recalled. "That was the coming-out party."


Just like that, College Park felt like the basketball town it had been at the height of the Gary Williams era, when the Terps made 11 NCAA tournaments in a row and routinely ranked in the top 10 in the country in home attendance.

The momentum has continued, with Maryland setting a program record for regular season wins and heading for a high seeding in the NCAA tournament, which begins this week.

Brenda Frese's women's program is also cresting, with a No. 1 regional seed likely after an undefeated debut run through the Big Ten conference and a Final Four appearance last year. Maryland is currently the only school with top 10 rankings in both the men's and women's Associated Press polls.

It's quite a shift from this time a year ago, when the Maryland men failed to make the NCAA tournament for the fourth straight time, including the first three years of coach Mark Turgeon's tenure. Fans began to grumble about ousting Turgeon as five scholarship players fled to play for other schools. On top of that loomed uncertain feelings about an impending move to the Big Ten, which would wipe out cherished rivalries against Duke and North Carolina.


But with the Terps winning again, student interest has surged, ticket revenues are up and boosters are dreaming of a run of glory similar to the one Williams kicked off 20 years ago.

"It's like a magic elixir," said Barry Gossett, one of the university's top donors and vice chair of the university system's Board of Regents. "It just amplifies everything that's good about the university and allows people to see it more clearly."

Loh recalls being roundly booed two years ago as he walked through the stands during home games. Fans were frustrated with his decision to leave the Atlantic Coast Conference and with the team's mediocre play. Now, he says, they routinely approach him to offer congratulations. At a recent alumni event in Los Angeles, hundreds showed up to meet Loh, Williams and former Terps star Joe Smith.

"All they wanted to talk about was the Big Ten and how the team had turned around," Loh said. "I compare today to two years ago, when our fan base was puzzled at best and outraged at worst, and everything has reversed. It's amazing, and all the credit has to go to our coaches and student-athletes."

'You could feel the buzz'

Turgeon and his players are reluctant to bask in the praise. They hope to accomplish more. But the coach acknowledges a sense of achievement, no matter where the season goes from here.

"I don't know what lies ahead. Hopefully, good things. Hopefully, a tournament run," Turgeon said. "But no matter what happens, we know it's been a great year. … It's been great for our fan base. We know going forward that this year's going to help us. We've set a standard now. The senior class has set a standard that we want to live up to, and this is the first time since I've been here that we've set a standard that's where I want it to be."

Senior standout Dez Wells agreed, saying, "I believe we have set the precedent really high for the next guys who come in."

He hopes success leads to wider appreciation for Turgeon, whom he praises for patiently nurturing bonds with the team's key players, even as other players departed.

"He's gotten a lot of unfair criticism over the last couple of years," Wells said. "For him to respond the way he has and coach us and challenge us the way he has over the last year, he deserves this."

Turgeon was recently voted Big Ten Coach of the Year by the media that covers the conference (Frese won as well), and it's fair to say he's never been held in higher esteem by his team's fan base.

"I really believe we have one of the best coaches in the country," said Rick Jaklitsch, an Upper Marlboro attorney and former president of the Terrapin Club, the nonprofit that raises funds to cover the university's athletic scholarships. "This is the first year the team has been able to play his kind of basketball, and now he's going to be able to recruit around this success. I think we're going to have another golden age with Mark Turgeon."

As a leader of the Terrapin Club, Jaklitsch saw first-hand how on-court success fueled greater interest in the university from donors. "It's all easier when you're winning," he said.

Anecdotally, he noted that his son, a freshman baseball player at Maryland, was shut out of the student section for several games this year because ticket demand was so high among upperclassmen. That likely wouldn't have happened last season or the season before.

"Oh my gosh, it's completely different from last year," said university sophomore Callie Caplan of Clarksville. "Everybody is excited about the games. You can't get student tickets unless you request them right away. After the Wisconsin game, you could feel the buzz on campus for a couple days."

Caplan and her father regularly exchange texts about the team, and she's taken her parents and her brother to games this season. She's getting a glimpse of the engagement students felt during much of Williams' tenure.

It's easy to forget now, but Williams failed to make the NCAA tournament in each of his first four seasons, as the program reeled from Len Bias' death and other scandals. Once the Terps made it back to the tournament in 1994, they began a run of appearances that didn't end until 2005. That stretch included the program's only national championship in 2002. Maryland's home arena became known as one of the most boisterous in college basketball, with sellout crowds the norm.

'Time to turn things around'

Even the most ardent fans say the program has a ways to go before it hits that kind of peak under Turgeon.

As recently as 2008, Maryland sold out every home game — an average of 17,950 fans. The average this year was 12,695, better than 2014 or 2013 but still hampered by weak crowds at nonconference games early in the season. Average attendance improved to 15,561 for the nine-game Big Ten home schedule, which culminated with sellouts against Wisconsin and Michigan. The student section was sold out for eight of nine conference games.

Overall ticket revenue was up 7 percent from 2014, and Maryland sold 700 of its allotted 1,000 ticket packages for the Big Ten tournament in Chicago.

"I don't know if we're quite there yet," Gossett said, comparing the current atmosphere to that of the program's peak. "This is just the first one for Mark. … But I think everybody's expectation is that we're going to get there."


This year's team has inspired that kind of faith, due to its record and the way players seem to enjoy one another. Instead of falling apart when five teammates, all significant contributors, transferred after last season, the Terps became more cohesive.


Junior forward Jake Layman said the remaining players "all stuck together and said, 'OK, it's time to turn things around.'"

It didn't hurt that freshman point guard Melo Trimble arrived, to complement high-scoring teammates Wells and Layman. Few teams can match the Terps' trio.

Former Maryland star Steve Blake, now with the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers, saw it coming last summer when he played pickup games against Trimble.

"I realized how good Melo was and how they were really coming together," Blake said. "I've been checking on them, and it's great to see the success they've had this year."

With Layman and Trimble expected back next year, fans are already talking about building on this team's success.

The players remain focused on this year. They'll find out where they're headed in the NCAA tournament when the brackets are announced at 6 p.m. Sunday. And from the coach on down, they expect to finish a compelling story with an even better ending.

"I don't think we're playing our best basketball yet," Turgeon said. "I really don't."


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