If you've been around here for awhile, you'll know I've never been one to mince words when it comes to Maryland Madness. It's one of my chief causes, and every year it goes unanswered. To be completely frank, ever since Gary Williams rode out in his Humvee back in 2008, the event has been gutted. It's become an overlong, promotion-filled, bloated whale of an event. Small crowds come, sit on their hands, and slowly file out as they're bored to death by increments, with nothing for them to actually get excited for.
I bring this up now because we stand exactly a month away from Maryland's 41st Madness. That's right, the college basketball season officially kicks off in just one month. And Maryland deserves a better Madness this time around. They're a likely tourney team if Dezmine Wells gets eligible, and Mark Turgeon has the Terrapins much farther along than anyone thought they'd be. Last year was the beginning of the Turgeon era, but this year could well be the beginning of Turgeon's dynasty. (Hyperbole. But still.) Madness should be reflecting that, a pronouncement that Turgeon is here and is real, that Maryland is on its way back. The past few have failed to pack that sort of power.
But Madness doesn't only have symbolic significance. With the Harrison Twins likely to visit along with Rysheed Jordan and probably Roddy Peters, not to mention the requisite bunch of 2014 and 2015 guys, Maryland needs to do something they haven't done in years: use Madness for the recruiting tool it is. Use it to showcase that Maryland is in fact a big-time program, and give the recruits a chance to see how rabid a riled-up Terrapin crowd can be, especially because most of these guys haven't seen that. And looking at the past few years, another snoozer MM will have the crowds anything but riled-up. This year, that's just not acceptable.
Having the big-time recruits in the building will help keep the die-hards at least somewhat engaged, but two hours of absolutely nothing happening is a good way to kill the buzz. And besides, Maryland used to own Midnight Madness. They literally invented it. There's no reason it has to be how it is now. Last year before the event, there was a fantastic montage entitled "Madness Memories," which had Walt Williams and a few others talking about their memories of the event. The juxtaposition of that with the hollow charade that was last year's Madness was soul-draining and served as the best evidence for the necessity of Maryland Madness reform we could ever have. That the athletic department (mostly in the Debbie Yow era) let it fall into this state of disrepair is criminal, and (behind the legacy of crippling debt and failures in both major revenue sports) is one of their most disappointing acts. (Hyperbole again. But only just.)
My list of grievances is lengthy, but the primary concern is that there's almost nothing to create excitement, and nearly everything that happens in fact dilutes it. The event began at 9:30 last year; the player intros didn't happen until two hours later. In the meantime, the crowd was treated to Maryland's students playing knockout, Maryland's students ripping streamers off their arms, and a mind-numblingly dull alumni scrimmage. Oh, and absolute legend Sasho Cirovski was trotted out to narrate a game of Keep The Balloon Off The Ground ... just after he coached the soccer team to a huge win over Duke ... on his birthday. (Show some respect, people.)
And lest you think I'm making too much out of this, ask yourself why Maryland Madness exists. It has two purposes: to serve as a recruiting tool, and to get fans excited about the season. As a commenter said so eloquently last year: If someone walks out less excited than when they walked in, the event failed miserably. Maryland's attendance needs all the help it can get, and if someone is convinced to buy a few tickets because they had fun at MM, that's not a bad thing. And don't forget that this is world in which elite recruits pick schools based partially on brand name and jersey colors. This doesn't mean everything, but it means something.
And like I said earlier, it means all the more this year. Because the collection of recruits isn't the pedestrian bunch it usually is: five top-30 prospects will likely be in the building, and they represent basically every real 2013 target left on Maryland's board. There's not a lot of wiggle room here. And after the Harrisons attended last year's $200k spectacle at Kentucky, the bar's been set pretty high. No one's going to choose a school based on their Madness, but showcasing the program and what a Maryland crowd looks like - just like Stefon Diggs saw when he was at the North Carolina game - can help change their perception, and that would only help matters.
But look, I get it. Maryland's kind of strapped for cash. Parachuting players down from the rafters is unlikely. But that's okay, because Madness events aren't half as complicated as schools try to make them. In fact, the biggest problem is usually that schools try to do too much. These things are 90% unnecessary fluff, and all it does is dilute the experience. If you can't find the dough for a big-time musical act, just keep it to the good stuff anyway.
So that means no student mini-games, which are unnecessary at best and malignant at worst. It also means no alumni game. Because as exciting as it sounds to watch Steve Blake and Greivis Vasquez play against each other, what really happens is a strung-out Steve Francis tries to cross-up an out-of-shape Dutch Morley in front of thousands of completely silent fans.* It's more than a little depressing and a bit creepy to boot. The event doesn't need any of this; start it at 10:00 with a gymkhana routine to allow people to file in, do all the promotional nonsense in the first five to ten minutes, and then go straight into the women's player intros. This thing shouldn't last over 90 minutes at the absolute longest.
(*Which doesn't mean I don't want the alumni to be around, mind you. Maryland basketball has never had the "family" that a lot of other programs have had, partially due to the massive differences between Gary and Lefty. That's hurt the program. Bringing guys back is a good thing; having them play isn't. If they need to be involved in Madness, pick 4-6 of them to be honorary coaches during the scrimmage. Might add a bit of competition to the whole thing, too.)
Oh, and a quick note on the player intros: these are the easiest things in the world. Maryland got 'em right last year; find a stage, some lasers and pyrotechnics, introduce the players and let 'em go up and dunk. Throw on some hype music and the fans will take care of themselves. I'm embarrassed that I have to mention this, but remember that back in 2009 Maryland's players literally just walked out of the tunnel in a line. You can never say it enough.
Of course, extra-curriculars outside of the intros and scrimmage are welcome, but only if they add to, instead of take away from, the experience. A dunk contest? Good - especially with Dez Wells and Nick Faust facing off. Getting Maryland's students to play around the world? Not good. A musical act of some sort would be fantastic - Wale in particular would be a nice touch - but money's tight, so I get it if not. A lesser-known local artist (like Logic or Phil Ade) would be fine, too, and it would add some entertainment to a sometimes-boring evening.
But again, as nice as it is, it's not a necessity. Maryland's a basketball school. Let 'em see the basketball, instead of making them sit around for two hours boring them with useless minutiae, and the fans will be fine. Put a bunch of mini-games up instead, and it'll be another clunker.
Fans are excited about this. Madness needs to match, maybe even increase that excitement, especially with the recruits who'll be in the building. Another year like the past few, and that won't happen. And that would be missing a huge opportunity.