COLLEGE PARK — There were more than a few teeth-gritting moments Thursday morning, as the vaunted Maryland basketball programs gathered for what was, nominally, a celebration.

The Terps broke ground on a new dedicated basketball facility, priced at the moment at $52 million, under a drizzle, with men’s coach Kevin Willard and women’s coach Brenda Frese manning backhoes to make the moment feel a little more momentous. And it is, as many Maryland official said during the ceremony, a “game changer” for programs that have both won national championships in the past 25 years.

But the biggest change is that now Maryland — the last Big Ten school and one of the last in the “Power Five” conferences to get such a facility — is finally in the game.

All of the major players in bringing this facility to life could not help but bring up just how long it has taken the Terps to catch up to what is now a bare-minimum standard in college hoops. It’s actually well behind, considering how much the women’s program has won in the last two decades, and how much the men’s program wants to win once again.

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A rendering of the Barry P. Gossett Basketball Performance Center in College Park, Maryland. (Courtesy of University of Maryland Athletics)

Scott Van Pelt, the SportsCenter anchor and perhaps Maryland’s best-known sports ambassador, got straight to the point to start the day: “Long time coming, am I right?” Frese pointedly joked that while patience may be one of her greatest virtues, she didn’t imagine waiting 21 years for a facility to begin construction.

Others didn’t shield their opinions with humor at all. Athletic director Damon Evans said at one point: “This is something that should have been done, in my humble opinion, years ago.” Willard was even more dramatic: “We don’t have a home,” he said of his program, even as he affirmed to reporters that coaching Maryland remains “a top-10 job” in his mind.

In spite of what the on-court results have been recently, the Terps are lagging behind in the arms race. And as they try to pull even, the nature of that competition has evolved completely with name, image and likeness money, the real game changer in college sports.

Everyone feels good about a groundbreaking — the Terps’ biggest donors, led by building namesake Barry P. Gossett, got construction helmets decked out with the state flag — but there was an undercurrent of regret to the proceedings. Maryland athletics announced plans for this facility nearly four years ago, and they knew they were falling behind even then. At the time, then-men’s basketball coach Mark Turgeon mentioned that it was “six or seven years in the making.”

Since that triumphant October 2019 announcement, the university’s hat-passing was slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic and Turgeon stepped down. But the most consequential change was new NIL rules, which fundamentally altered the importance of facilities.

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Before NIL money, universities spent lavishly on athlete services and amenities to show how much they cared, but also to justify the television money that was rolling in and not going into students’ pockets. The practice, labeled “gold plating,” was a dizzying arms race of excessive gilding, such as putting university logos onto every piece of equipment, or demolishing a recent building to make way for a bigger, better one like the recruiting rival down the pike.

But the game is up now: Students don’t necessarily want their locker personalized with reclining seats as much as they want a wad of cash in their pockets. DeMatha product Hunter Dickinson explained his decision to go from Michigan to Kansas (over reportedly Maryland in the runner-up field) because he made less than six figures with the Wolverines. Since transferring from Maryland, LSU’s Angel Reese is reportedly raking in more than a $1 million thanks to tournament success and her self-styled “Bayou Barbie” persona.

It was only last year when the Maryland football program moved into the Jones-Hill House, a state-of-the-art facility in the old Cole Field House with a price tag well into nine figures. It might be one of the most luxurious football facilities in the Big Ten, but head coach Mike Locksley gave a depressing quote to The Athletic about how little that massive investment could affect recruiting.

“Unfortunately, we moved in at a time when facilities have been deemphasized in a recruit’s mind,” Locksley said. “Because they’d get dressed in the trash can for $25,000.”

This doesn’t mean that Maryland should not build a basketball facility: At this point, it is an embarrassment that they don’t have one. To this day, the men and women practice in the Xfinity Center, scheduling around each other and any campus events hosted there.

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Maryland men’s basketball coach Kevin Willard speaks at the groundbreaking for the school’s Barry P. Gossett Basketball Performance Center in College Park, Maryland, on Thursday, June 22, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Mackenzie Miles/Maryland Terrapins)

Willard might have moved up in the world when he accepted the Terps’ job last year, but shockingly Seton Hall and Maryland were similarly far along in their basketball facilities: They existed only in imagination. In their conversations before Willard was hired, Evans was adamant that the Terps would start building the facility in a year. Willard said he would have taken the job even if Evans said he wasn’t building it — but it’s hard to see recapturing the late-‘90s, early-2000s glory days without one.

The unfortunate part of the lag in the latest project is the possibility that it diverts funds from the Terps’ NIL efforts. While there is little regulation or formal shape to NIL money at this point, there’s a pretty commonsense guidance: the more you have, the better your recruiting will be.

Maryland athletics reports that some $41 million of the facility’s eventual $52 million expense has been raised. When you consider how some of Maryland’s boosters have rallied to bring out the cranes, it’s a frustrating hypothetical to wonder what could have been had the Terps built the facility years ago and could now allow boosters to instead focus on the NIL deals that haul in recruits.

Frese has a top-10 class for next season; Willard‘s class falls in several recruiting sites’ top-20s. With an Elite Eight and a second-round finish respectively, they’re punching above their weight given some of their disadvantages in facilities and in NIL money compared to even their Big Ten rivals, not to mention blue-blooded programs such as the South Carolina women or the Duke men.

Women’s basketball has been as steady as any of Maryland’s sports under Frese’s tenure. After the two-decade wait, she’s already dreaming of her new office, which will have one window overlooking the court and one looking out “into nature” when it opens in 2025. But it won’t feel like a finish line to move into it: NIL demands will continue to press upon her even once this facilities gap is bridged.

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“The world we’re in now, it’s a blend of both,” Frese said. “You gotta have both to be able to compete with the best for the best.”

kyle.goon@thebaltimorebanner.com