COLLEGE PARK — While Duke and North Carolina might have had a more intense rivalry with Maryland and its fans during the program’s 61 years in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Virginia had its own place, especially when it came to the arena in which the Terps played.
The Cavaliers not only helped open Cole Field House in 1955, but they helped close it in 2002, a few weeks before Maryland won its only national championship. And as the Terps were leaving the ACC in 2014, Virginia was in College Park to play Maryland’s last regular-season game.
That storied past has little to do with what is at stake Wednesday night.
Maryland will welcome its old, once-familiar foe back to Xfinity Center to play on a stage the newly ranked No. 24 Terps haven’t walked on — or run on — in a couple of years when they play the No. 4 Cavaliers in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
“What a great opportunity for us,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said Tuesday after practice. “I think it’s more about we get the rivalry game back. Their fans are probably excited about it. I know our fans are excited about it. That’s why they [ESPN] did it. Just a great opportunity to have this team on our homecourt, just to see how good we are.”
Said sophomore center Bruno Fernando: “It’s a great opportunity for us to find out about ourselves. They’re a great team, they got a lot of great players. We’ve just got to come out and have fun and enjoy playing at home. Hopefully it’s going to be a great crowd to help us with a lot of energy tomorrow. We’re just fortunate to be in this position.”
Maryland will be looking for its first victory in the annual interleague showcase since joining the Big Ten. Unlike the circumstances going into their past four games against ACC competition, the Terps should be coming into a packed home court healthy, rested and confident.
Four years ago against then-No. 7 Virginia, Maryland was unbeaten and newly ranked at No. 21, but the Terps were trying to figure out how to play without star senior guard Dez Wells, who only days before had broken his wrist in the championship game of the CBE Hall of Fame Classic. The Cavaliers won, 76-65.
Three years ago, the Terps started the season ranked No. 3 in the country and traveled to Chapel Hill ranked No. 2 to play North Carolina. In a game that went down to the wire, Maryland lost to the No. 9 Tar Heels, 89-81.
The past two years, Maryland was coming off Thanksgiving weekend tournaments, the first in Brooklyn, N.Y., and last season in Niceville, Fla. The short turnaround was too much, with the Terps losing at home to Pittsburgh in 2017 and on the road at Syracuse last year.
“We’ve had a tough go, a lot of good teams in this,” Turgeon said of Maryland’s ACC-Big Ten Challenge losing streak. “We’ve been at home [the past few days], we’ve had plenty of time to prepare. This year we’re really working on us, trying to make us better. … Whether we can handle Virginia, we’ll see.”
Virginia coach Tony Bennett, whose Cavaliers have won their past four games in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, said in a teleconference Monday that playing up the rivalry with Maryland doesn’t resonate with his current team nearly as much it did when he first arrived in Charlottesville a decade ago.
“I think they know the significance of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge,” Bennett said. “Have respect for a storied basketball program, but I don't know if there's familiarity with the rivalry. You tell them it was a great rivalry. It's hard to grasp the rivalry as much as when I first got into the league.”
Given how young the Terps are — with five freshmen in the rotation and two, forward Jalen Smith (Mount Saint Joseph) and point guard Eric Ayala, likely in the starting lineup — junior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. has a message for his teammates.
“Tomorrow’s probably going to be the biggest game you played in. Just play your game, take it as just the next game approach,” Cowan said. “Just come in and play free, but also try to expect to win.”
The matchup with the Cavaliers is certainly an interesting one, given that Virginia is by far the best defensive team Maryland has faced.
“Arguably the best one we’ll play all year,” Turgeon said of a Cavaliers team that is giving up just under 50 points a game and has not surrendered more than 59 in their first six games, all victories.
The Terps are averaging nearly 85 points in their first six games, also all wins, and are coming off their highest scoring game under Turgeon in Friday’s 104-67 rout of Marshall.
That performance, coming against a team that beat Wichita State as a No. 13 seed in last year’s NCAA tournament with nearly the same cast, certainly helped build Maryland’s growing confidence.
“I think the thing I’m most proud of is that we’ve gotten better every game, in some phase,” Turgeon said. “To be up 46 against anybody is hard to do. Are we more confident? Absolutely, because of it. We feel like we’re heading in the right direction.”
Asked what stands out about Maryland’s mindset going into its biggest game of the season — against perhaps the highest ranked team the Terps could face all year — Fernando said: “Just how confident we are and how we play together. I think we enjoy playing with each other.”
Longtime college basketball analyst Dan Bonner, who played at Virginia, said that an upset victory for the Terps would go along way in helping them return to the NCAA tournament after missing it for the first time in four years last season.
“It’s a very important game,” Bonner said Tuesday. “You don’t want to overstate it. … I don’t think it’s a season-defining game for Maryland.”
Bonner added that he wished the game would have been played much later in the season since Maryland has so many new faces and the Cavaliers are missing a couple of players who served valuable roles on a team that lost just two games before UMBC’s historic upset of the NCAA tournament’s No. 1 overall seed.
“The thing in seeing both of these teams, the thing that strikes me about this game, is that it would be a much better game in February when both of these teams have figured out how their pieces fit together,” Bonner said.
Bonner, who was part of the Big Ten Network broadcast crew for Maryland’s win over Marshall, said that while it could be difficult for the Terps to adjust to Virginia’s ‘Pack-Line’ man-to-man defense and patient offense, the Cavaliers could have a difficult time trying to contain the 6-foot-10 Fernando, who has made 41 of 53 shots from the field (77.4 percent) this season.
“Tony Bennett relies on Jack Salt to be his guy in the middle defensively, and the guy works hard and it’s not like he has no athletic ability, he obviously does, but nobody [on Virginia] has the athletic ability that Bruno Fernando does,” Bonner said. “That’s a really hard matchup for Virginia. I think that might be the decisive matchup in the game.”
Maryland lost to Virginia the first five times the Terps faced the Cavaliers under Turgeon before a 75-69 overtime win in March 2014. It was payback for what happened the year before in Charlottesville, when the Cavaliers won in overtime, 61-58.
“You can’t speed ‘em up, you really can’t. A little bit sometimes when they’re on the road,” Turgeon said Tuesday. “Our guys are aware of that. We’ve just got to be efficient. There are things you’ve got to do to give yourself a chance. They’re good at what they do and you have to figure out a way to be good at what you do.”
Asked how difficult it is to not get frustrated with Virginia’s style of play, Cowan smiled. Or smirked.
“Guess we’ll have to find out tomorrow,” he said.