On Sunday, Maryland and Towson will meet at Xfinity Center, and fans of both men's basketball teams rightly will wonder: Just how long has it been since the Terps and Tigers last played, anyway?
In one sense, Maryland and Towson never have. Consider the programs' previous meeting: Keith Booth was a senior starter in College Park, Ralph Biggs was the Tigers' leading scorer and the name on the front of his jersey read "Towson State." It wasn't until a year later, in 1997, that the school name dropped a word and became what it's known as today.
So, yeah, it has been a while. Twenty years. No Terps-Tigers games.
"I didn't realize it'd been that long," Towson coach Pat Skerry said Thursday.
Given the allure of Sunday's Barclays Classic opening-round showdown — nation's preseason No. 25 team versus Colonial Athletic Association contender — the idea of another 20-year hiatus seems inconceivable. Especially considering that Maryland's other local Division I opponents have proved all but incapable of challenging the state's flagship program.
Since the Terps' 93-76 win over the Tigers on Nov. 30, 1996, they have faced Mount St. Mary's six times, UMBC six times, UMES four times, Morgan State three times and Loyola Maryland once. (Navy and Coppin State have not appeared on their schedule in the past 20 years.)
Maryland won all but one of those 20 games, a 66-65 home loss to Todd Bozeman's Bears in 2009. The average margin of those 19 wins: 31.2 points.
Not that Towson would have fared much better. Over the past two decades, the Tigers hired and fired three coaches who could not bring the team above .500 for even one season. Skerry, the first lead Towson to a winning record since 1995-96, endured part of a Division I men's record 41-game losing streak.
It has been a long climb to respectability. According to statistical website KenPom.com's efficiency rankings, the Tigers were ranked No. 339 out of 345 Division I schools in 2011-12, Skerry's first season. If this season ended Saturday, Towson's No. 142 ranking would have been its second best under the sixth-year coach, behind only the No. 130 team in 2013-14 that advanced to the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament quarterfinals and won a Division I school-record 25 games.
It is important progress in light of Sunday's game and the rematches the future might hold. As the NCAA tournament selection committee continues to reward teams with a strong nonconference strength of schedule, a regular game against the Tigers (2-0) could offer the Terps (3-0) a solid line in their March Madness resume and their northeastern neighbor minimal travel costs.
"I hope we are" good enough to be an opponent that major-conference schools seek out, Skerry said. "And I think if that's the case, we would certainly consider that a compliment, from where we started out a few years ago."
With success, however, comes privilege. Skerry said that if the teams could agree to an annual series, he would prefer not to play in College Park every year. He suggested a neutral game at Royal Farms Arena, where the Terps last year played their first game in Baltimore since 1999.
"We would gladly play a great local program like them every year, but obviously you don't want to play on the road every year, either," Skerry said. "But … scheduling's hard. They have scheduling needs and things they have to meet and fill, and sometimes that stuff works out [for us]. Sometimes it doesn't."
In leaving behind the Atlantic Coast Conference, Maryland effectively severed its basketball rivalries with Duke and Virginia. The Terps have yet to find a true nemesis in the Big Ten, and with a game against Towson next year not guaranteed, there is little to suggest the dawn of a possible circle-your-calendar grudge match.
Some foundation is there, though. The schools are the largest Division I institutions in the state. Terps-Tigers couples are not uncommon. Even children who grow up in a Maryland-first home can one day take the Xfinity Center court hoping to hear the Towson fight song.
Mike Morsell did. The Tigers junior guard's parents met as undergraduates in College Park and settled in Fort Washington. He used to root for Maryland, used to look up to Steve Blake and Juan Dixon, used to go to as many games as he could.
On Sunday, he'll gaze at a crowd of red and white, searching for friends and family wearing the other two colors of the state flag: black and gold.
"I'm expecting a lot of people," Morsell said. Then he acknowledged one problem with that. "I can only get, like, four tickets."