In the '90s, when Gary Williams was building the University Maryland men's basketball team back up to national contention, the Terps made annual trips up to Baltimore to play a game in what was then known simply as the Baltimore Arena. As The Sun reported back in June, Maryland traveled up for a game every season between 1992-93 and 1999-2000, and they played just two games, in the 1982-83 and 1987-88 seasons, before that. After beating Iowa 84-65 on Nov. 30, 1999, that tradition stopped.
Why? Turns out it's as simple as trying to get the scheduling right.
On Saturday, Maryland will play a game in what is now the Royal Farms Arena for the first time in 16 years, against Princeton. Coach Mark Turgeon's squad is currently ranked No. 6 in the AP poll, and while they're still young, the group is deeply talented and has many thinking Maryland can make a deep run during March Madness. All of which is to say it's a great year for them to be coming back to Baltimore.
I spoke with Troy Ellis Wainwright, a senior associate athletic director at the university and sports supervisor for the men's basketball team, who previously served as director of basketball operations under Williams, about how the team returned to Baltimore and if we can expect more games in the future.
City Paper: There used to be an annual game up here, and then that stopped. Do you remember when that was and what the reason for that was?
Troy Ellis Wainwright: It's been over 10 years since we were there. I can't remember the last game, although I remember we played Massachusetts up there, we played Iowa as part of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge up there. I think we may have played Towson, maybe a local team or two. But yeah, it was a somewhat regular, if not yearly, thing for many years. And then it was just a confluence of differing schedules that couldn't be accommodated and just not finding a real time. You know, the other thing is, a lot of times when we have marquee-type games—and obviously, if you're going to play in a different city locally, we want to kinda make it a marquee game—we catch a lot of heat from our season ticket holders about taking really good games outside Xfinity Center. So there was some of that.
But then again, the Baltimore Arena, now Royal Farms [Arena] obviously, has done a great job at booking some of the talent that they have. Again, sort of a difficulty with timing and scheduling for that little chasm of 10 years.
This year, with us not being able to play in our gym for five to six days around the holiday, it presented an opportunity for us to look elsewhere, Baltimore being the closest place we wanted to go. Coach Turgeon, when he started, said he would like to be able to play a game in Baltimore with some regularity. So this has sort of been the culmination of a couple years of trying to figure it out, making it work for our schedule and making it worthwhile and a game that's gonna be a great game.
CP: So what's the reason the Xfinity Center can't be used around the holidays? I'm an alumnus and I remember going to games during winter break. Is there something that's changed?
TEW: Well no, it's just that around Christmas time we have graduation.
TEW: So they've completely transformed the floor. I think they're held over two or three different days, and of course there’s the setup and breakdown.
The other thing is that we were coming out of exams. So whenever you have an exam break, you would like to be able to play before the holiday. So for us to play before Christmas but yet let the guys have a break—you have like a two- or three-day window.
CP: Tell me how it landed in Baltimore. What were the other places you were considering?
TEW: Never really a consideration of any place else. Always wanted to have a presence in Baltimore. It's obviously the biggest city in our state, and certainly as the flagship university, we'd like to have a presence there. I think, being as close as we are to Washington [D.C.], sometimes people assimilate us with being a Washington-area school. Maryland Pride has been our moniker, and being part of a game in the state's largest city is very important to us.
CP: You mentioned coach Turgeon talked about wanting to do this when he first got here. What was the reason for that? Does it dovetail with what you just said?
TEW: I think it dovetails with what I said. Obviously, you're looking at it for competitive reasons. There's some phenomenal basketball players in Baltimore. For us over the years, we've had some great recruits: Juan Dixon, Rodney Elliott, all the way back to Ernie Graham. Baltimore's a hotbed of talent, so us having a presence here is also a positive for competitive reasons.
CP: Is there a commitment to keep doing this year after year? Or is this a wait-and-see kind of thing?
TEW: I think it's a commitment to wanting to do it. Again, it's just a matter of timing and making it a game that's worthwhile for us to play there, and I mean that [we're playing] a quality opponent. We're very happy Princeton has agreed to play this game because we feel as though that's the type of opponent that's worthwhile. And with close to 10,000 seats that'll be sold, I think that obviously proves that out. It doesn't hurt that our team is ranked in the top 10—they're a really special team this year. So it's exciting to have such a great group of players, and our program on a very high note, to be able to take it to Baltimore and share in that excitement.
CP: You mentioned the team's ranking. Was that a factor in coming up to Baltimore? If this were . . .
TEW: No, it wouldn't have mattered if we weren't projected to be very good. Again, I think the main factor in this is our willingness and our wanting to be a part of the Baltimore community, just to share our Maryland pride and be excited about our flagship university and men's basketball program having a presence in Charm City.
CP: Are you guys going to do any events in the lead up to the game?
TEW: Maryland fans are notorious for liking to have pregame parties, so I'm sure the entire downtown area—I remember back when we did play there, it almost enocmpasses the entire Inner Harbor. You'll see a lot of people with Maryland sweatshirts and a lot of red down there on Saturday.
CP: Do you have any particular memories from the earlier games here? It's an old arena, it's kind of like Cole Field House in that way.
TEW: Yeah, it's an old arena. I know it sounds funny, but old arenas kind of have that smell—that locker room, popcorn, spilled beer type of place. It's one of those. For basketball purists, the arena is a great place to watch basketball. I mean, all the way back to when the Baltimore Bullets played there, there's been some phenomenal games.
I do remember when we played UMass back in the day [when they had] Marcus Camby. That was the culmination of where it was [in Baltimore], they were highly ranked when we played them. And I believe that was a Saturday afternoon game—I distinctly remember because I was in the middle of it, a couple of those bars down in the Inner Harbor were just jammed with Maryland people. And we expect the same this Saturday.