It's been 55 years since Maryland and North Carolina last faced one another in a nonconference setting. It seems nearly that long since a game between the heavyweights has meant this much.
The second-ranked Terrapins and No. 9 Tar Heels square off Tuesday night at the Smith Center for the first time since Maryland's shocking 2014 conference switch, one of several storylines existing in this showcase game of The Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
The 180th meeting between the schools will be the first with both ranked in the top 10 since the No. 5 Terps recorded an 89-76 win over the ninth-ranked Tar Heels in Chapel Hill on Jan. 13, 1999, part of a 61-year association in the ACC that Maryland severed with its decision to join the Big Ten following the 2013-14 academic year.
Maryland (6-0) ended its run with eight consecutive losses to the Tar Heels, though none of those teams appear as talented as the present one that's added a pair of high-profile ACC transfers in former Duke guard Rasheed Sulaimon (11.2 points per game) and ex-Georgia Tech forward Robert Carter (13.0 ppg) to a core headlined by star sophomore guard Melo Trimble (14.8 ppg, 4.5 assists per game) and senior forward Jake Layman (11.7 ppg).
North Carolina (5-1) entered 2015-16 with even higher expectations after returning nine of its top 10 scorers from last season and beginning this campaign atop the polls. Though their profile has been diminished by a 71-67 upset loss at Northern Iowa on Nov. 21, the Tar Heels have bounced back with quality wins over Northwestern and Kansas State in last week's CBE Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City.
The Tar Heels played all those games without standout guard Marcus Paige due to a fractured bone in his non-shooting hand. The experienced senior has since been cleared to make his season debut and coach Roy Williams announced Monday that Paige will start.
Paige has led UNC in scoring and assists in each of the past two seasons.
''I'm not putting really any pressure on myself,'' he said. ''It's my first game back, I'm probably not going to be `peak Marcus,' but I'd like to be. And if I am, it's great. But I'm not expecting myself to be perfect tomorrow. ... I'm just happy to be back playing.''
A 38.1 percent 3-point shooter, Paige's return should help shore up the Tar Heels' one glaring weakness. North Carolina is shooting 32.1 percent from beyond the arc and was 5 for 18 in the Northern Iowa loss.
Much of the Tar Heels' 81.3 points per game has come from its imposing frontcourt of forwards Justin Jackson (14.7 ppg) and Brice Johnson (13.0 ppg, 10.3 rebounds per game) and center Kennedy Meeks (14.3 ppg). All three are shooting over 50 percent and have helped UNC rank among the national leaders with a plus-12.8 rebounding margin.
Jackson is averaging 22.7 points on 58.1 percent shooting over his last three. The sophomore scored 13 of his 22 points in the second half against Kansas State, helping rally the Tar Heels from a 67-59 deficit with 4:22 left.
Maryland, which last bested UNC with a 92-71 rout in College Park on Feb. 7, 2010, overcame a slow start of its own Saturday against Cleveland State. The Terps led by four at halftime before pulling away for an 80-63 win.
"Maybe it was a little flat to start and maybe we were looking forward to what lies ahead, but we have to be more consistent with our effort," coach Mark Turgeon said.
This game will be the first nonconference meeting between the schools since the Dixie Classic tournament in Raleigh on Dec. 29, 1960. Maryland has lost five straight in Chapel Hill since upsetting then-No. 1 UNC 82-80 on Jan. 19, 2008.