Maryland Terrapins' Damonte Dodd reacts after being defeated by the Kansas Jayhawks 79-63 during the third round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament in Louisville on Thursday night.
Maryland men's basketball coach Mark Turgeon knows firsthand how good the two teams in Monday's NCAA tournament final are.
The Terps played at Villanova in a closed preseason scrimmage on Halloween and faced North Carolina a little more than a month later in Chapel Hill.
Turgeon wasn't surprised that the Wildcats and Tar Heels won their respective semifinals Saturday in Houston. What Turgeon and many others didn't expect was the dominance of their victories over Oklahoma and Syracuse; the Wildcats, in particular, had a Final Four-record 44-point romp over the Sooners.
Turgeon's biggest takeaway from the regular season and from this year's NCAA tournament, especially the Final Four, is how experience often trumps talent.
Turgeon believes his Terps, who finished 27-9 after the school's first Sweet 16 appearance in 13 years, did "pretty well" for a team with three new starters: freshman Diamond Stone and transfers Rasheed Sulaimon and Robert Carter Jr.
"I think all the teams in the Final Four" have played together awhile, Turgeon said. "Oklahoma had something like 100 starts together, something crazy. There's a reason those teams are playing. … We didn't have that. We weren't even together over the summer" before Stone and Sulaimon came on campus.
The scrimmage against Villanova was the first time Stone, Sulaimon and Carter had played together in an officiated game with returning starters Melo Trimble and Jake Layman.
Not much was said of the Oct. 31 scrimmage between the Terps and Wildcats. The only trickle of news that came out afterward was from ESPN's Jeff Goodman, who tweeted that Villanova "edged out" Maryland and that "Kris Jenkins made a bunch of 3s."
According to Turgeon, the game was tied at the last "media" timeout, around the four-minute mark, before the Wildcats pulled away to win "by around 10 or 12." Turgeon said Jenkins wasn't the only Wildcat who shot well. "We played well, but they shot the [heck] out of it," Turgeon said Sunday.
At the time, Maryland was considered one of the early-season favorites to win the national championship, while the Wildcats, coming off another early exit from the NCAA tournament, were a borderline top-10 team.
"I think they showed us something that day with their senior leadership and their toughness," Turgeon said Sunday. "The guy I didn't know about when we played them was No. 25 [Mikal Bridges]. I couldn't believe how good he was, and he's gotten a lot better since then. He was what made them more complete. I walked away unbelievably impressed with their team."
During a Big East Conference teleconference in mid-February — the same week the Wildcats were ranked No. 1 and Maryland No. 2 — Villanova coach Jay Wright called the closed scrimmage "maybe one of the greatest games nobody ever saw."
"As good as they were in that game," he said, "we came out of that game saying: 'Wow, they could win a national championship. It would be amazing if we could meet up again.' "
We know what happened next. The 21-3 Wildcats kept winning, losing only a road game at Xavier a couple of weeks later and then to Seton Hall in the Big East tournament. The 22-3 Terps lost to Wisconsin in their next home game, and four of their last six to close the regular season.
Turgeon said he watched Villanova "off and on" during the course of the season.
"Right now, everything Jay's doing is working," Turgeon said. "They're making shots. They're going to be really hard to beat [Monday]. Teams that usually advance to the championship game are hot at the right time. They're really good and they're playing their best basketball right now."
If there is a team that can slow the Wildcats, it's the Tar Heels.
In what was one of the best early games of the season, North Carolina beat Maryland, 89-81, in the marquee matchup of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge at the Smith Center on Dec. 1.
After a nervous start, Trimble led the Terps back from a 13-point deficit to take the lead early in the second half. With Sulaimon's help, Trimble kept Maryland in the game until late. Trimble finished with 23 points and 12 assists, and Sulaimon, despite incessant boos by Tar Heels fans who remembered his days at Duke, finished with 18.
North Carolina, which had gone into the season as the co-No. 1 team with Kentucky despite losing star guard Marcus Paige to a broken hand in preseason practice, came into the Maryland game at No. 9 after losing at North Carolina. Paige returned to score 20 points against the Terps, while forward Brice Johnson had a quiet 16.
"I think they're deeper, a little more complete," Turgeon said of the Tar Heels on Sunday. "They're playing better. Their bench is really helping them. They have great depth. They had it then, too. They're a really good team. They're the most talented team we played all year."
Turgeon has spent the 10 days since Maryland's season-ending loss to Kansas in Louisville, Ky., decompressing. He talked with the team Monday, and rather than go to the Final Four, as most coaches do, Turgeon stayed back with his family this weekend. On Sunday, he took son Leo to see "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice."
Not that Turgeon isn't planning for the future.
A lot depends on the decisions of three underclassmen — Trimble, Stone and Carter — on whether they will return next season.
"We've got to have two back," Turgeon said. "Logistics and common sense says two should come back, but that always doesn't come into play when kids make these decisions."
Turgeon said he has given all three "space" to talk with their families about their respective decisions, and doesn't know when he will sit down with those involved.
"In the next few weeks, [they'll] make a decision. I don't know," Turgeon said. "I don't know if they'll all venture [into the draft process] or sign with an agent. I don't know. Each kid is different, so we'll see."