Most years, heading to Dean E. Smith Center meant the Maryland Terrapins were going to get served up a loss. Tar Heels head coach Roy Williams almost assures that by his mere presence on the sidelines; his .7977 win percentage is 7th all-time amongst college coaches. That number is higher than Dean Smith, higher than Mike Krzyzewski, higher than John Calipari, and a whole score of other legendary college coaches. Any time you take the court against Carolina, and especially in their own dojo, you get the feeling that a win is simply unrealistic.
Most years, that is the case. North Carolina teams are typified by a few key juniors and seniors, and a few younger, highly-touted recruits who change the pace of the game. Last year, Tyler Zeller and John Henson were those older players, Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall were the sophomore stars. They had experience and skill, and neither team had to rely on lots of youth to carry them to success. That combination of older leadership and youthful ambition typically gives UNC a very dangerous punch.
This year, that aura of superiority simply feels different. Of the Tar Heels top five scorers, three are either freshmen or sophomores, two are juniors, and there are no seniors. The only senior that North Carolina relies on is Dexter Strickland, a guy who has been decent this year, but also has a freshman breathing down his back in Marcus Paige. Two of their top three scorers are sophomores who came off the bench the year prior in Reggie Bullock and James Michael McAdoo. No one on their team has ever been a go-to option in college basketball during their career.
Still, fans tend to expect the same amount of superiority and success that comes with the North Carolina brand year-in and year-out. These young players are expected to take the torch and carry it directly into the NCAA tournament, just as prior teams have done for eight of the past nine seasons.
The Maryland Terrapins are equal parts intrigue as they are frustration. Bouts of veteran, sound, basketball performances spliced with youthful endeavors that often fall flat on their face. Of their five leading scorers, only James Padgett is a senior. The rest? Sophomores or freshmen. Eight of their nine leading scorers are sophomores or freshmen. Even at Kentucky, that would be considered a terribly youthful platoon to go to battle with.
There is a plethora of talent present all over the roster. Freshmen like Shaquille Cleare and Charles Mitchell who have come in and played like old men. Young guards like Nick Faust and Seth Allen who rise to the occasion, hitting shots when required and spurring runs like older players with ice in their veins tend to do. Of course, there’s that guy Alex Len, who is supposed to eventually become some NBA star. With all that talent, there is a lot of hope for massive amounts of success that have eluded the Terrapins over the past three seasons.
Head coach Mark Turgeon has been bringing in players who are able to compete immediately, and urge forward a new era of Maryland dominance; he wants these Terrapins to become relevant on a national level once again. The expectations are high because he has set the bar high, and the fans now expect the bar to remain at that level during his tenure. Even if the team is young, and prone to young mistakes.
North Carolina is currently 11-5, and only 1-2 in the ACC this season. They have dropped the rare game at home against someone not named Duke (it was Miami), and only narrowly beat the other Florida team. The Tar Heels got blown out by then #1 Indiana 83-59, but took it to #20 UNLV at home. When they’re on, they’re on fire. When they’re off, they simply don’t show up.
Sophomore guard P.J. Hairston is perhaps their most explosive scorer. He more recently dropped a career-high 23 points against Florida State, propelling them to a victory by way of his incredible shooting touch. The two games prior? An eight point performance against Virginia, and a five point dud against Miami at home that left fans wondering if he just wasn’t cut out for some of the rough and tough ACC games.
The Maryland Terrapins are 14-3, and 2-2 in ACC play. Comcast Center, one of the toughest venues to play in, was recently home to a loss against an inconsistent Florida State team. It was also home to a one point, near-buzzer beater victory to #14 North Carolina State in which Alex Len stamped his name in the Maryland book of lore. A 51% from the field, 43% from deep, 24-point blowout victory over Virginia Tech was sandwiched in between two games in which the Terrapins didn’t even break 60 points.
Perhaps their most effective scorer when he’s on fire, Dez Wells almost led the Terrapins back from the brink of death against Miami with an 18 point, 5 rebound performance. The next game against North Carolina State? Wells had four points on only 2-of-10 shooting and was largely ineffective most of the game. Terrapins fans wonder every game which Dez will show up: the Wells that can make teams like Stony Brook and George Mason miserable or the Wells that can make life easy for teams like NC State or Florida State?
Stop me if you’ve heard this story before.
These two maddeningly inconsistent but talent and promise-laden rosters take on one another tomorrow in North Carolina. Both teams are fresh off a much-needed victory that halted a two-game skid in ACC play. Both teams will be looking at tape of the similar games they have played in hopes of finding a weakness. Both teams are going to be saddled with the presumption of greatness. At North Carolina it is a tradition, at Maryland it is an expectation. Home games tend to be wins for home teams and an incredible coach, but then, both of these teams are as young as they come that any prior rule of thumb is out the window.
They may have different jerseys, traditions, coaches, and players, but the Maryland Terrapins and the North Carolina Tar Heels are the same team this year.