A rivalry that was made through decades of games on cold nights in warm, old ACC gyms – Maryland’s Cole Field House, North Carolina’s Carmichael Auditorium – continues Tuesday at the Smith Center, a throwback in an age of college sports that has no time for history.
No one knew when North Carolina and Maryland would play again after the Terrapins, a charter member of the ACC, left for the Big Ten following the 2013-14 season. And it’s unclear when they’ll meet again after Tuesday night’s game in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
But here they are again, two top-10 teams, two old rivals back at it, same as it ever was. Almost.
“I’m old-school and I’ve been here a long time, and I’ll always think of Maryland as being an ACC school,” UNC coach Roy Williams said Monday. “But we have a magnificent conference right now. I think they would still be part of a magnificent conference if they were with us, and they would have added a lot to us but the fact of the matter is that they’re not.”
UNC and Maryland will play each other for the 180th time – but for the first time since Maryland joined the Big Ten. It will be the first non-conference game between the schools since they played in the 1960 Dixie Classic in Raleigh.
They were both a part of the ACC then, too, but their game in that tournament didn’t count in the conference standings. This one won’t, either, for the first time in 55 years, but it carries significant implications – at least as much as any game can in early December.
The ninth-ranked Tar Heels, who began the season No. 1, will be, for the first time this season, at full strength. Marcus Paige, the senior guard, expects to make his season debut after missing his team’s first six games while recovering from a broken bone in his hand.
It’s an optimal time for Paige to return, given the challenges facing his team. Maryland will enter the Smith Center ranked second nationally, as the favorite to win the Big Ten and as one of the favorites, along with UNC, to make a run in March toward the Final Four.
It’s early yet. The start of conference play is still several weeks away. Yet Paige on Monday found himself thinking a few months ahead.
“We like to think we’re one of the elite teams and I know Maryland thinks they’re one of the elite teams,” Paige said. “A match-up in December can meet a lot to the selection committee down the road.
“Thinking super far ahead, that can be the difference between a one seed and a two seed or a different location in the NCAA tournament.”
The last time the two teams met, Paige scored 25 points in UNC’s 75-63 victory in the Smith Center in February 2014. The Terrapins finished that season with 17 wins and didn’t make the NCAA tournament.
Then came something of a breakthrough a season ago in coach Mark Turgeon’s fourth season. Twenty-eight victories. The program’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 2010. Which led to higher expectations this season, given the return of an experienced team.
The ACC-Big Ten Challenge is as much as anything a made-for-TV event, designed to generate the most attractive match-ups as possible. And so it made sense that UNC and Maryland, two preseason top-5 teams, were paired against each other.
Not that Williams, the UNC coach, liked it any better. The main positive he found in Maryland leaving the ACC was that it meant he wouldn’t have to coach against Turgeon, who was an assistant to Williams at Kansas.
When the ACC-Big Ten Challenge schedule came out and Williams saw that he’d be coaching against his former assistant, “I didn’t like it,” Williams said. “No question about it.”
It has been nearly 25 years since Williams and Turgeon last worked together in 1992 but they remain close. They talk often, though Williams said it had been a couple of weeks, leading into their game against each other, since they’d spoken.
“For me, Turge is extremely important,” Williams said. “His family and his wife, I know really well. The kids. I’m really appreciative of him.”
Now, though, Williams’ old friend and colleague stands in the way of what would be a significant early-season victory. Without Paige the Tar Heels sometimes looked lost, like a team trying to find its way, though they managed a dramatic rally in a victory against Kansas State last weekend.
Still, some of the same things Williams has talked about, repeatedly, in recent seasons have been problems again through the first six games. Things like effort and urgency. Want-to.
“We’ve just got to play harder than what we’ve been playing,” said sophomore forward Justin Jackson. “We’ve gone back, watched film on the game that we lost, the games that we’ve won. And we still haven’t had a full game where we’ve played harder than the other team the entire time.”
This, then, might be the sort of thing UNC needs to increase its intensity: a game against an opponent that’s not only ranked among the top five, but one whose arrival in the Smith Center will conjure up a sense of history and perhaps some mystique.
UNC-Maryland basketball games used to mean something, and did for decades. Sometimes they decided ACC regular-season championships, other times they left the ACC with some of its most indelible highlights – like when Maryland’s Len Bias put on a show at the Smith Center 30 years ago.
Now they’re back at it again, familiar rivals playing amid somewhat strange circumstances.
“Yeah it doesn’t even really feel like an ACC-Big Ten Challenge game,” Paige said. “... It’ll be cool, and it’ll be kind of like a throwback ACC environment.”