Who: #2 Maryland Terrapins at #9 North Carolina Tar Heels
What: A chance to become the #1 team in the country
Where: The Dean E. Smith Center and ESPN
When: 9:30 PM
Line: North Carolina (-6)

Back during baseball season, when the Mets had John Mayberry and Eric “Soup” Campbell hitting in the middle of their lineup, I started to look towards the next meaningful sports season for one of my teams. Geno Smith was still the quarterback of the Jets at the time, so it was easy to brush off the NFL and start checking out Maryland’s basketball schedule. But usually, Maryland has a relatively light out of conference slate which means college basketball doesn’t REALLY start until about January. So I was incredibly excited this year to see a game at North Carolina on December 1st.

Long story short, I’ve been counting down to this game for months. Duke games were obviously at the top of the list when I went to college, but UNC was routinely ranked inside the Top 5 when they played Maryland and from 2006 – 2010 provided some really memorable moments. The Bobby Frasor missed layup followed by a Mike Jones three that keyed a Maryland run in 2007. Boom Osby’s layup in 2008 to get an upset of #1 in Chapel Hill. And of course Greivis’ triple double when the Terps stormed back from 9 down with 1:40 left in regulation to get an OT win. I like looking up at the screen this season and see a “3” or “2” next to Maryland on the score bug. A convincing win in Chapel Hill would make a strong case for Maryland taking the “1” from Kentucky.

Three things to know about the Tar Heels

1. Marcus Paige is back: In case you haven’t heard from everywhere else on the internet, UNC’s All-American point guard will play in his first game since suffering a broken right hand this offseason. Without Paige, UNC has been a majority very good team with one loss that won’t look nearly as bad in March as most people think. With Paige? We’ll have to see. If this game was happening right after the Northern Iowa loss, I think Paige would immediately resume his alpha dog role on this team and be the primary scorer on the floor tonight. But, Carolina really showed some life in their last two games including what was essentially a road game against Kansas State in Kansas City. The offense functioned well with sophomore Justin Jackson stepping up with consecutive games of 21 and 22 points. So it will be interesting to see how Paige fits into this game. My bet is since he’s coming off injury, Roy Williams won’t push him to shoulder the majority of the offensive load. He’ll facilitate and be a second or third option.

2. Paige could change the pace: This is where I think Paige will have the biggest impact. The last two seasons – and really much further back than that – UNC has played fast. KenPom had them ranked in the top 20 in adjusted tempo in both 2013 and 2014. This year they’re ranked 79th, and I have to think that’s almost exclusively because sophomore Joel Berry II has been running the offense and not Paige. With him back, this is going to be a battle of which team can control the pace of the game because despite Turgeon saying he wanted his team to play quicker this year, they clock in at a glacial 314th in pace. Maryland has the personnel to play at Carolina’s speed for stretches, but if this game turns into a track meet, it could go a long way to negating the Terps size advantage because it might force Turgeon to take his bigs off the floor.

3. They’ve crushed teams on the glass: It’s still early in the season, so I’m not willing to say that UNC is a bad three-point shooting team. Especially with Paige returning (39.5% from three last season), the sample size is too small to judge a player or team’s outside shooting. But, I do feel comfortable saying that Maryland will be fighting an uphill battle on the boards tonight. In their last two games, the Tar Heels were +14 and +13 respectively in the rebounding column. Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks will be BY FAR the best inside duo the Terps have seen all season. As I mentioned, Maryland has the height advantage, but they have plenty of times this season already and have been outrebounded in several games. Dodd and Cekovsky haven’t been great this season at getting proper position on rebounds, and they definitely haven’t been physical enough under the hoop. I don’t have a bad word to say about Robert Carter, so the guy I’m really watching tonight is going to be Jake Layman. It’d be nice to see the scoring light flipped on for him tonight, but it is necessary that he really attacks the glass and works in the paint more than usual. The Terps have enough of a scoring punch with Trimble, Carter, Sulaimon and maybe Nickens after last game. If Jake Layman has more rebounds than shot attempts, the Terps should be in good shape.

Prediction: North Carolina 82, Maryland 75

Losing this game would be nothing to be ashamed of, because I think it’s one of the toughest games any team has played all year. The Terps aren’t a very young team, so I don’t think a tough road environment will rattle them, but the Dean Dome is going to give North Carolina some extra energy tonight along with Paige’s return. I used to be supremely confident that Maryland had a huge coaching advantage over North Carolina when Gary Williams was still on the sidelines. I’m a Turgeon believer, but he’s not Gary Williams, and there’s the added problem that Turgeon coached under Roy Williams, so Williams knows Turgeon as a coach about as well he knows anyone. Because of that, it’s going to be tough for Maryland to surprise UNC with a game plan wrinkle.

To win this game, Maryland will need to flip that rebounding edge in their direction. They’ll need to keep the game a little slower than UNC wants it, mainly by getting to the free throw line. That will not only get the Terps to the area of the court that they’re most successful, but it will also allow the big men to get a quick breath in between wind sprints chasing the Tar Heels up and down the court. Trimble will need to outperform Paige, and someone in the middle will need to step up alongside Carter in the trenches against Meeks and Johnson. It’s not impossible, but it would be an incredibly impressive win for a team that really only rounded into form in their last two games.