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ORONO, Maine — The Duke University men’s basketball team has not dropped a nonconference game on its home court at historic Cameron Indoor Stadium in more than 16 years — since an 83-82 loss to St. John’s on Feb. 26, 2000.
That’s the reality facing the University of Maine on Saturday when it faces the powerhouse Blue Devils in a 5:30 p.m. game scheduled to be televised by ESPN2.
“We’re playing one of the best teams in the county in probably the toughest place to play in the country,” said UMaine coach Bob Walsh. “The streak they’ve had there is incredible — I remember watching that St. John’s game.
“The basketball challenge is their size, their length, their athleticism, their talent, their pedigree. It’s all there, so it will be an incredible challenge for us.”
Two programs at opposite ends of the Division I men’s college basketball spectrum will meet for the first time on the hardwood.
Fifth-ranked Duke, under Mike Krzyzewski, is 7-1 after Tuesday’s 78-69 victory over Michigan State — its 130th consecutive nonconference home win.
UMaine, a program that has never qualified for the NCAA Division I tournament, is 2-5 after Wednesday’s 82-61 loss to Central Connecticut.
This game that sends UMaine to one of the most well-known campus settings in the sport is about more than a single win or loss in a 30-game season.
For UMaine, the benefits are at least two-fold. The matchup is considered a “guarantee game,” with UMaine receiving $85,000 from Duke for making the trip to Durham, North Carolina, for what in all likelihood will be a defeat.
UMaine originally had a guarantee game scheduled for Saturday at Rhode Island, but when that fell through last spring the Black Bears were left searching for another money game on the same date — which also coincided with an open date on Duke’s schedule.
“We were planning to play a guarantee game on that date and we were planning to go on the road, so then it was a matter of looking for teams that were looking for the same thing,” said Walsh, who leaves much of the scheduling work to assistant coach Matt O’Brien. “Duke was, and obviously we knew the basketball challenge would be incredible, but the experience we thought would be something special as well.”
The matchup with Duke, combined with similar nonconference guarantee games this season against Virginia Tech ($85,000), Buffalo ($85,000) and Providence ($70,000), will provide the UMaine men’s basketball program $325,000 minus expenses toward the annual athletics budget.
“Some of our sports programs have the opportunity to bring in money with game guarantees or ticket sales, but none of our sports programs are producing positive net revenue so we have to rely on various sources of revenue — institutional funding, ticket sales, fundraising, game guarantees, multimedia rights, you name it,” said UMaine athletic director Karlton Creech. “We’re always trying to piece that revenue and funding puzzle together and men’s basketball is one of the sports along with football where there’s significant money being paid for these games.”
Another attraction for mid-major programs like UMaine to accept such games, particularly against national powers such as Duke, is to provide their players memorable basketball experiences.
Saturday, it’s the chance for the Black Bears to test themselves against a Duke lineup full of former McDonald’s High School All-Americans or future NBA draftees such as All-America guard Grayson Allen at an iconic venue.
“The opportunity to go to one of the premier locations like Cameron Indoor Stadium — even though it’s a small venue it’s an incredible venue, one of those palaces of basketball in our country — was something (Walsh) and I thought we couldn’t pass up,” said Creech.
Creech, who served as senior associate athletic director at Duke’s main rival, the nearby University of North Carolina, before coming to UMaine in February 2014, is familiar with Cameron, which opened in 1940 at an original construction cost of $400,000.
At the time, it was the largest indoor stadium in the South. Today it is one of the smaller major-college basketball venues in the country with a capacity of 9,314.
“It’s just a great experience being there,” said Creech. “There’s not a lot of technology in that building, it’s an older building, but the student section — which is one of the best in the country — surrounds the court. The students are right on top of you and you leave that building after a highly competitive game and your ears are ringing. It’s so loud in there.”
For the major powers like Duke that pay mid-major opponents to come to their home courts, the incentives are both statistical and financial.
The “guarantee” from that side of the matchup is that the top-level teams are almost assured to win, as evidenced by Duke’s long home non-conference winning streak.
“When you look at Duke, which plays in the Atlantic Coast Conference — arguably year in and year out one of it not the best basketball conferences in the country — they know going into the ACC schedule every year that they’ve got their hands full, and they also participate in events like the Big East-ACC challenge as well as some other highly competitive games they schedule each year,” said Creech.
“So, candidly, when they fill out the schedule after all that they want wins.”
There’s also major revenue to be generated. Duke has sold out its last 411 home contests during a streak that began on Nov. 26, 1990.
The Blue Devils have guarantee games on their schedule this season against Marist, Grand Canyon, William & Mary, Appalachian State, UMaine, Tennessee State and Elon.
“A team like Duke wants as many home games as they can get at Cameron each year because that’s one of their primary revenue streams with ticket sales and multimedia rights and everything else that goes into hosting a game on their campus,” said Creech.
“They’re looking at schools like Maine that are willing to go there and play, and it’s actually a win-win for both. They’re putting out a lot of cash but they’re making a lot of cash on those home games, much more than they’re paying out.”
While such monetary matters typically rule the world of big-time sports, for the UMaine players this weekend spent in the spotlight at a bucket-list college basketball destination most likely will produce memories that are priceless.
Even without a win.
“It’s a special place and it’s a special game,” said Walsh. “Our guys have been excited about this since the day we first talked with them about it.
“Duke is the gold standard of college basketball programs over the last 30 years. The venue, the opponent, all of it, is really special.”