Maryland couldn't beat North Carolina on Tuesday, but the Terrapins accomplished something even more difficult. They actually made you miss them, and only two years after leaving the ACC. It always seemed like it would take more time to heal these wounds. Some elite basketball did the job nicely.
Two top-10 teams delivered a top-10 game with Melo Trimble and Marcus Paige exchanging 3-pointers throughout the second half. The renewal of old hostilities led to an old-school, big-time feel, with Gary Williams in the stands and Harrison Barnes and James Michael McAdoo seated on the baseline and Rasheed Sulaimon booed heartily in a different opposing uniform.
It felt like an ACC game again, if only for a moment in December, even if this 89-81 North Carolina win counts in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge standings, not the ACC standings. The students were well aware, chanting “ACC” at the end.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
"That had the feel of an old ACC game, an old ACC tournament game, a NCAA tournament game,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “It was just fortunate for us it was in our building."
When Maryland left for the Big Ten, its football program was wholeheartedly mediocre, its basketball program lost at sea, its uniforms a fashion disaster, Mark Turgeon no replacement for the sweat and foot-stomping vigor of Williams on the basketball bench. From the ACC's perspective Louisville walked in the door and took the Terrapins' place with ease -- an immediate upgrade in football, an Elite Eight team in basketball (albeit at the expense of N.C. State in Syracuse, some ACC-on-ACC-in-ACC crime).
So if Maryland wasn't really missed right away, that had a lot to do with Maryland and a lot to do with Louisville and a lot to do with a growing comfort level in college sports with teams moving from conference to conference. A generation ago, it would have been just as hard to ever imagine Maryland leaving the ACC as it would to imagine Florida State or Miami or Notre Dame winning basketball titles.
Still, Maryland's departure just happened to coincide with Turgeon's program turning the corner, so when Maryland returned to the Triangle -- although not for a Maryland-Duke grudge match featuring former Blue Devils guard Sulaimon – it was for a top-10 meeting with the Tar Heels, the first between these teams under such lofty circumstances in Chapel Hill since 1999.
That's a testament to Turgeon's work over the past two years. The former Roy Williams assistant has the Terrapins rolling now. Trimble is a big part of that. So is Sulaimon, back in the Triangle for the first time since he was booted off Duke's team last January. The Blue Devils went on to win a national championship without him last season; the Terrapins have a shot to win one with him this season.
North Carolina reaffirmed its credentials in that regard Tuesday, with Paige back in the lineup after missing a month with a broken hand. All the Tar Heels' pieces fell into place with Paige playing his usual 34 minutes and producing his usual second-half outburst, with 13 of his 20 coming after halftime, enough to neutralize Trimble's 23 points and Sulaimon's 18.
The offensive explosion from both backcourts and the tachycardiac pace left everyone wanting more. And not too long ago, there would have been more not too far in the future.
“Definitely, if they were an ACC team, you'd be like, 'Wow, two top-five teams' and everyone would be anticipating the next matchup because of how good a game this was,” Paige said.
If this happens again, it won't be until March or April. For now, this will have to suffice. North Carolina and Maryland renewed old acquaintances Tuesday night, and it was as good as it ever was.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock