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After season with jam-packed schedules, Big Ten men's tourney could have empty seats in New York

The idea of bringing Maryland and Rutgers into the Big Ten starting in the 2014-15 school year was more about potential than performance, more about the size of the television markets where the schools were located than the current respective fan bases of their high-profile athletic teams.

At the time, both programs were struggling in the two major sports.

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While some progress has been made, mostly by the Terps in men’s basketball, the Big Ten continues to try to put its stamp outside its longtime home base in the Midwest. The most publicized move is taking this year’s Big Ten men’s basketball tournament to Madison Square Garden.

After reconfiguring its regular-season schedule to play there — a week before the Big East goes back for a 26th straight year — the Big Ten is hoping that the historic venue and New York City itself will be as big an attraction as the teams playing this week.

In a season in which only four Big Ten teams are considered sure bets to be among the 68 picked for the NCAA tournament, a season in which several teams are simply looking to ride out a disappointing season, the Garden could have a strange look to some teams used to playing before sellout crowds.

It hasn’t stopped longtime Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, who pushed to get schools from the New York area and the Washington-Baltimore corridor into the league, from talking up the idea of playing in the Garden a year after the Verizon Center had trouble attracting a packed house when Maryland departed early.

“I think it's probably the most important corridor in the country, maybe the world, if you look at media, if you look at politics, if you look at banking, if you look at finance,” Delany said when the Big Ten held its preseason media day before a sparse group at the Garden in October.

“So it was important for us to be here, to live here, participate, and to do everything we could to facilitate integration athletically, competitively, culturally, and that's why we're here."

A sense of reality has settled in during the ensuing months.

Delany acknowledged in an interview last week that playing a compressed schedule wasn’t worth the impact it had on several teams in terms of their erratic performance and their overall health, both of which might hurt the league in terms of NCAA tournament bids.

“ I appreciate the sacrifices the teams made, the impact it had on our students,” Delany told the Chicago Tribune. “Wasn’t good. Wasn’t healthy. I thought starting [the conference schedule] early was OK, but if you look at our schedules [through the years], we’ve been able to give everybody two-day prep [before games] in 99 percent of the cases.

“We won’t do it again this way, and I take responsibility for asking the coaches. … If we can make it back to the Garden on a regular week, that’s great.”

During the Big Ten teleconference Monday, Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said he and his counterparts understood what was at stake from the beginning. He knows the tight schedule affected a team struggling with injuries and depth problems most of the season.

“I think we had to do it as a league. We wanted to get to New York. We owed it Rutgers,” Turgeon said. “It was something we had to do. I don’t think anyone’s blaming Jim or anything. It was something we all agreed to do, we wanted to do.

“Was it hard? Yeah, it was probably hard on the student-athletes. Sometimes you had three games in five days or whatever it was. It was difficult. I don’t know if we would change it. I know Jim said he doesn’t want to do it again in the future. I’m sure we’ll all be OK with that.”

A year after there was more than a 20 percent drop in attendance at the Verizon Center — in part because the Terps exited after a quarterfinal defeat to Northwestern — the numbers could dip even more this week.

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Delany told the Tribune that 14,000 seats have sold for each session in an arena that will accommodate 17,000 for the event. As often happens, thousands have been scooped up by ticket brokers.

Floor-level tickets for Thursday’s afternoon session featuring teams with a strong alumni base in New York — Maryland, Wisconsin and Michigan — are available on StubHub for $6 each.

Vinny Patel, a 1997 Maryland graduate who has served on the school’s Alumni Association board for the past decade, is looking forward to the Big Ten coming to New York, mostly because he now lives in Brooklyn.

But Patel suspects that the interest among Terps fans has waned this season because of the team’s uneven play that resulted in a 19-12 overall record and an 8-10 record in the Big Ten.

Based on attendance at watch parties the association’s New York chapter held for Maryland fans for football games last fall at an East Side bar, “I thought we were going to ride right into basketball season,” Patel said.

But attendance at those watch parties dropped in comparison to recent basketball seasons, when the Terps were nationally ranked and headed to the NCAA tournament.

“The year we went to the Sweet 16 [in 2015-16], we had lines out the door,” Patel said. “It definitely does play a role.”

Given that a potential Friday quarterfinal matchup with top-seeded and No. 2 Michigan State would also be a noon start, Patel suspects more fans might be there than for Wisconsin.

“The real hardcore fans that come out to every game watch regardless, I think they will be there,” Patel said. “If we win on Thursday, people will take a day off and go to the game. I’ve seen text messages about ‘Check out StubHub, really cheap [tickets], grab it.’ ”

Delany told the Chicago Tribune that the Big Ten would go back to the Garden only if it could play the week leading up to the NCAA tournament selection. Given the arena’s long-term relationship with the Big East, that seems unlikely.

“I know we will be back out East,” Delany said. “Where we will be, I don’t know. It won’t be on a regular basis. I expect that 80 percent will be in legacy territory [Chicago and Indianapolis] and probably 20 percent out East, whether it’s in D.C. or Philadelphia or New York.”

The disappointing season the Terps had — punctuated by an 85-61 loss at home to the Wolverines on Saturday — has certainly diluted the interest among a passionate fan base. Maryland had just one announced sellout this season, when the Terps played then-No. 5 Michigan State last month.

Maryland fans have been a vocal presence during the team’s regular trips to New York under Turgeon, including for a victory over Connecticut at the Garden in the Jimmy V Classic in 2015-16.

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Still, Turgeon said Monday that he and his players are “jacked up” about going to the Garden.

“[It’s] the greatest venue in the world," Turgeon said. “Of course we’ll have a ton of fans, we should, that love basketball up in that area. We’re expecting a good crowd. Thursday afternoon’s tough. I think it’s exciting for everybody. Playing in the Garden. Being in New York. I think it’s terrific. We’ve had some success up in New York. I know we’re fired up and ready to go.”

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