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Terps wrap return to Cole Field House, with ups and downs

After more than a decade apart, Cole Field House and Terrapins basketball were formally together again Friday night, as the Terps brought Maryland Madness back to their old building for the event's 42nd edition. The night was a net positive for the program, in my opinion, though a few things likely could have come off better.

By its very nature, Madness is a special event for the program and a lot of fans, so coupling it with this nostalgia-filled airplane-hangar of an arena meant a lot to a lot of people -- none more than the men and women who have led the program. All six of the men's and women's head coaches were in attendance, and though it's the company line to praise the night, were touched by the setting.

"It was a great night for Maryland basketball,' Mark Turgeon said afterward.

"Tonight was really special," echoed Brenda Freese.

"There's just so many memories," Chris Weller said beforehand.

The stuffy, historic location was a positive change of pace for Maryland. Regardless of opinions of the overall atmosphere -- more on that to come -- it was likely better at Cole than it would have been at Comcast Center, where an old, historic event is made to keep up with a more new-school environment. Whether fans had seen games in Cole or not, Madness happening there made the event something of a novelty, and it inspired visceral reactions for a lot of longtime fans.

The atmosphere itself has gotten mixed reviews. Fans began clearing out of the building more than a half-hour before the event actually ended, keeping with a recent trend of patrons prematurely heading for the exits at Terrapins sporting events. This wasn't a "Steve Blake steals vs. Duke" crowd, but that couldn't have been anyone's expectation.

People started filing into the building at 5:30, keeping with the program's recent decision to hold the event in the evening instead of at midnight. That dismayed Lefty Driesell, the legendary men's coach, who deadpanned that midnight starts let students 'get right" during a long night and inspired a better environment: "That's the reason we filled it up," he said. But holding the event earlier made it much more attractive to families with young children, many of whom were hanging off railings with their faces painted at this year's Madness.

The longest part of the night, though, was unquestionably the roughly half-hour period between the introductions of the women's and men's teams. During that time, alumna Bonnie Bernstein went down a list of every notable Terps team, men's and women's, that played in Cole from the 1970s to the turn of the millennium, introducing representatives from each.

It was a nice nod to a proud history, but it inspired more golf-clapping than serious roaring and certainly mellowed a restless student section at time of peak excitement, in the midst of introductions. The athletic department has stressed observation of both a "proud past" and a "fearless future," but that balance is a hard one to strike.

To my ears, the building quieted down after that presentation.

There were definite high points, though. The congregations of each of the men's and women's coaches in program history at center court were historic and true, and the crowd went wild for each. The players all got sufficiently loud receptions when they came on during introductions, and for most of the night, the crowd was engaged.

Naturally, Madness includes some filler, but even that was entertaining, especially for a young crowd. Short spurts of the university's Gymkana program and an inter-squad dance routine didn't run very long and were received well. There's only so much excitement a program can stoke when there's no competitive basketball to be played, but these Terps did their best to put on an entertaining show. Turgeon acknowledged afterward that it went longer than he would have liked, but the event was handled well in what has become a foreign logistical setting for program officials.

Save for a few moments, the arena wasn't absolutely bonkers, but guess what? It was a glorified practice, and there were no earth-shattering recruits teetering on the edge of commitment in attendance. The Terps put on a decent show in front of a dedicated crowd (until it thinned, anyway), and they did some justice to a storied history.

"This building has a lot of history," former star Walt Williams said. "It definitely shouldn't be forgotten."

This Madness helped to make sure it won't be, and that counts for something.