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— Early-season games don’t come any spicier than Sunday’s grudge match between Georgetown and Maryland. Don’t believe the tepid pregame comments from players and coaches in both camps.

When the 21st-ranked Hoyas (3-1) meet the Terps (4-1) for just the third time since 1981, the stakes will be far higher than either program is willing to admit. Bragging rights, local recruiting advantages and a serious measure of power-conference pride will be on the line in this Old Spice Classic matchup at the Milk House.

“I’m not going to talk it up just because it’s Maryland. I’m not about all that,” said Georgetown point guard and Bowie native Chris Wright (12.3 points, 4.5 assists). “We’re going to approach it like it’s just another game.”

No chance.

The self-described “happiest place on Earth” is a complete stranger to the brand of mutual enmity about to descend on its 5,500-seat arena.

“It’s not just another game to the fans,” said 1978 Georgetown alumnus and longtime Hoyas follower Chris Sortwell, who was a student on the Hilltop when the Hoyas broke Maryland’s stranglehold on the rivalry. Maryland claims it leads the series 36-25, while Georgetown has it at 36-26.

“Back in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, Georgetown basketball was a second-class citizen in the city. We just could not beat Maryland even when we were better. Then all of a sudden, Sleepy Floyd shows up, scores 28 points in the second game of his career in a victory over Maryland [68-65 in 1978] and the program officially takes off.

“We beat them two times the next season, most importantly in the regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament, and then the series just vanishes. After playing virtually every season before, the teams have played only twice since [1993 and 2001], and Georgetown lost both times. That means most Georgetown fans have never seen a victory over Maryland.”

Both programs blame the other for the cessation of the series. Georgetown claims the 1993 game at the Capital Centre was a neutral-site matchup - even though the Landover arena then served as the Hoyas’ home court - because tickets and proceeds were split and Maryland was the official home team. Maryland claims Georgetown still owes it a game in College Park and sees a potential meeting in the annual BB&T; Classic at Verizon Center (now Georgetown’s off-campus home) as a second consecutive home game for the Hoyas and thus unsatisfactory.

“It’s complicated,” Maryland coach Gary Williams said of the stalemate. “It hasn’t happened for whatever reason.”

A resumption of the series featuring the D.C. area’s primary basketball powers is nowhere on the horizon. Georgetown athletic director Bernard Muir claims the subject hasn’t come up in the three-plus years since his hiring.

While Maryland has slumped recently, making the NCAA tournament only once in the last four seasons, Georgetown has surged under coach John Thompson III. The Hoyas are coming off back-to-back Big East titles and have made three straight NCAA tournament appearances, including a trip to the Final Four in 2007.

Equally important, the Hoyas have dominated the area recruiting scene, beating out the Terps for the last two local McDonald’s All-Americans (Wright and Austin Freeman) and last two All-Met players of the year (Wright and freshman guard Jason Clark). In fact, the Hoyas’ starting lineup features more Maryland natives (Wright, Freeman and DaJuan Summers) than the Terps’ (Braxton Dupree).

Both squads are relatively young and led by bona fide superstars in Maryland junior guard Greivis Vasquez (20.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists) and Georgetown freshman center Greg Monroe (15.0 points, 5.5 rebounds). Both teams lack frontcourt depth. But perhaps the biggest difference between the squads is the relative talent of the supporting casts. On paper, the Hoyas’ group is much stronger, which is the reason Georgetown began the season ranked while the ACC’s coaches picked Maryland to finish seventh.

Those predictions didn’t stop the Terps from beating No. 5 Michigan State 80-62 Thursday in the opening round of the tournament. And they won’t mean a thing when the rivals with a halting history take the floor Sunday.

“There’s no doubt that this game means a lot to both fan bases,” Thompson said. “But the quick turnaround and the location should help the guys stay focused. If we were playing them in D.C. in a week, then I think the hype might make it a different deal. But I honestly don’t feel that down here. We’ll see.”

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