COLLEGE PARK – By now the Terrapins men’s basketball team is used to the national spotlight. Talk of the Terps being one of college basketball’s most legitimate contenders for the national championship dates back to the beginning of the offseason last March.
Maryland has largely lived up to the preseason hype, notching a 2-2 record against four ranked teams with wins at home against Iowa and Purdue, and losses on the road against North Carolina and Michigan State.
But the contest with Maryland’s most high-profile opponent took place before their season of great expectations began.
On Oct. 31, the Terps went toe-to-toe with current No. 1-ranked Villanova behind closed doors on the Wildcats’ home court.
“Maybe one of the greatest games no one ever saw,” Wildcats coach Jay Wright called it, confirming the secret scrimmage in a Feb. 11 teleconference call.
Wright said there was no final score and no decisive winner between the two powerhouse programs. In lieu of a regulation game, the teams played quarters and ran drills with one minute left on the clock in order to simulate game-time situations.
At the time, the low-key preseason matchup was seemingly irrelevant for the two teams, who are in completely separate conferences and weren’t scheduled to see each other in the regular season. But that irrelevancy turned to hype when the AP Top 25 Poll and the USA Today Coaches Poll last week both ranked Villanova and Maryland first and second, respectively.
Terrapins coach Mark Turgeon vaguely commented on the scrimmage in a press conference on Feb. 8.
“In our private scrimmage we wanted to challenge our guys and obviously we did that,” Turgeon said. “We learned a lot from our private scrimmage.”
Even as early as the Halloween scrimmage, Wright was blown away by the talent of the squad Turgeon had put together. The Wildcats coach raved about the potential of Maryland’s newest additions, freshman center Diamond Stone, transfer guard Rasheed Sulaimon and transfer power forward Robert Carter Jr.
“You could just tell all those guys, when they got going together, were going to be great,” he said. “We see a significant improvement in chemistry, a bond that just makes them a great team.”
Having scrimmaged the Terps, Wright said he and his team had a unique perspective watching Maryland’s progression from the first time playing together in the preseason to the current cohesion on the court.
“Where they are now, compared to where they were in that scrimmage, is light years,” Wright said.
Stone’s transformation from a talented freshman to the Terps’ starting center can be used as a measuring stick for the team’s strides. The former five-star recruit is averaging 12.8 points and 5.4 rebounds per game so far this season.
Maryland suffered a 13-point loss to Wisconsin Saturday – which snapped the Terps’ 27-game winning streak at home – but only dropped the team to No. 5 and No. 6 in the USA Today Coaches Poll and AP Top 25 Poll, respectively.
Despite not playing each other in the regular season since Jan. 15, 2011, when the Wildcats topped the Terps 74-66, there is some shared history between the two teams in recent years.
Roman Stubbs of the Washington Post noted that the two teams faced off in another scrimmage “two years ago in College Park, where Dez Wells reportedly hit a game-winning shot at the buzzer.”
Stubbs also reported that Maryland was set to play Villanova in the Jimmy V Classic in 2014, but the Terps cancelled due to scheduling conflicts.
As poetic as two of the college basketball’s juggernauts settling the score from a secret preseason bout sounds, talk of a Maryland-Villanova rematch is mere speculation with the roller coaster ride that is the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
But that’s just fine with Wright. Despite his No. 1 Wildcats currently outranking No. 6 Maryland, the coach was in no hurry to see that Terrapins squad any time soon.
“I would only like to play them again if it was in the national championship game,” Wright said. “Other than that, I would not be interested in seeing them again.”