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If only for one night: Maryland at North Carolina an old-school clash

The nonconference schedules have been released, which means it’s time to identify the biggest games of the season. There are some matchups that simply can’t be missed. This week, we take a look at some of the most notable ones. Today: Maryland at North Carolina.

This isn’t just any nonconference game. This used to be an annual matchup of ACC foes that both sides took for granted. But last year Maryland, a charter member of the ACC, bolted for the greener payoffs of the Big Ten.

There are still players on both rosters who remember when the teams met twice per season. The argument could be made that the Terrapins are still more familiar with North Carolina than with their Big Ten opponents.

When the Tar Heels welcome Maryland to the Dean E. Smith Center on Dec. 1 for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, it will mark the 180th meeting between the two schools in a series that dates back to 1924. (For comparison, the Terps have played all the Big Ten schools a combined 91 times.)

The winner of Maryland and North Carolina, for old times’ sake, should officially be in first place in the ACC standings after the game. Maybe not, but the outcome could end up being a determining factor when the NCAA tournament is seeded as both teams could be vying for a No. 1 spot.

Best reason to watch

By Dec. 1, most of college football’s regular season will be finished, meaning the plethora of schools headed to a bowl destination that doesn’t matter will give fans permission to finally tune in to hoops.

Maryland and North Carolina could be the nation’s No. 1- and No. 2-ranked teams in the preseason. And the team that’s considered the best will virtually come down to a coin toss at that point.

The Tar Heels are 7-0 in games pitting the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the Associated Press poll, but against Maryland they might hope they’re ranked No. 2. Carolina has lost to the Terps on five occasions when it has been ranked No. 1, which is more than any other school has beaten a top-ranked UNC team.

If that’s not compelling enough, how about the personal battle between North Carolina coach Roy Williams and Maryland coach Mark Turgeon? The two have remained close since Turgeon served as an assistant during Williams’ first four seasons as the head coach at Kansas.

Players to watch

Maryland sophomore guard Melo Trimble helped shape the outlook for this season by deciding to return to school. He led the Terps in scoring and assists as a freshman and essentially convinced senior forward Jake Layman to join him for another run.

Freshman Diamond Stone, a five-star center ranked sixth in the ESPN 100, gives Maryland the inside presence it lacked last season. Add forward Robert Carter Jr., a Georgia Tech transfer, and the Terps' rebounding struggles should be a thing of the past.

Rasheed Sulaimon looks for a fresh start at Maryland after being the first player Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski ever dismissed. The senior wing brings versatility and big-game experience to a roster that isn’t used to playing with big expectations.

Carolina guard Marcus Paige played the first half of last season with plantar fasciitis in his foot. Now that he’s healthy, he should resemble the player ACC coaches voted their preseason Player of the Year before last season.

Carolina forward Justin Jackson, like Trimble, is on a short list of sophomores expected to have monster seasons. Jackson tended to defer to older players last season, but he should benefit from the early exodus of J.P. Tokoto to the NBA.

Carolina forward Brice Johnson has great touch in the post, and center Kennedy Meeks continued to trim down over the summer, finally making his conditioning a nonfactor.

Never too early to predict a winner, so ...

Of course, it’s preposterous to talk about who will win a game in December considering how many variables could change between now and when the game is played. But that’s why it’s fun to talk about it.

There are several statistical reasons to lean toward Carolina. The Heels have won eight straight in the series, including the past five games played in the Smith Center. (The Terps last won in Chapel Hill back on Jan. 19, 2008.) Williams maintains a perfect 7-0 record against Turgeon.

The main reason to predict a Heels victory is their experience. Carolina returns nine of its top 10 players from last season. The Heels already know their roles and what to expect from each other, and their two-member freshmen class will likely need to make only bit contributions.

The Terps could have the bigger upside as a team and, once they get used to playing together, could be more formidable than the Heels. But on Dec. 1, the Terps won't be even 10 games into the season and will be playing in their first true road game, and their many new pieces might still be trying to figure things out. The Heels should already know who they are.