The No. 2 ranked Terrapins will head to North Carolina to take on the No. 9 ranked Tar Heels Tuesday night (9:30 p.m., ESPN) in one of the most anticipated non-conference matchups of the season.
While it won't be a battle between the nation's top two teams like previously hoped, as the Tar Heels forfeited their preseason No. 1 ranking after an early season upset, it'll be the second game of the season between two of the AP's top 10 teams. The first ended in a 73-62 Kentucky win over Duke.
Maryland enters the month of December undefeated at 6-0, though it had several close calls early, as the Terps barely escaped a close game at home against Rider and edged Georgetown by just four points. The Terrapins seemed to have learned what they needed to improve – namely zone offense and staying out of foul trouble – winning their last two games, however, by an average score of 20 points.
North Carolina wasn't as lucky to learn from its mistakes without a glaring "L" on its resume as the team suffered a loss at Northern Iowa. The 5-1 club can rest easy knowing the early blunder came as they were without their leading scorer from a season ago, Marcus Paige, who fractured his hand Nov. 3, before the Heels' first game.
The outcome of Tuesday's Big Ten/ACC matchup will surely make an impact come time for seeding decisions in March, and it seems that a revitalized Terrapins offense is poised for a big win at the Dean Dome.
Five reasons Maryland will beat North Carolina:
1. North Carolina's leading scorer from last season, Marcus Paige, will play in his first game of the season against the Terps. Sophomore Joel Berry and junior Nate Britt have taken the helm of the Tar Heels offense in Paige's absence. In 31.8 minutes, Berry is averaging 11.5 points on just 40.3 percent, 3.7 assists with 2.8 turnovers, 3.2 rebounds per game as the starter. Britt is averaging 8.8 points, 1.7 assists and 2.3 rebounds in 23.5 minutes per game as his backup. How will those minutes shift in Paige's return? If it appeared that Maryland lacked chemistry in its first games against Mount St. Mary's and Southern New Hampshire, picture North Carolina inserting its leading shot-taker into the mix, after playing six games without him, against the No. 2 team in the country. It'll be difficult for the Tar Heels to re-adjust on both ends playing with their scoring leader from last season for the first time.
2. Maryland's offense is really starting to click. North Carolina's defense will undoubtedly be the best Maryland has faced thus far, but in the Terps' past two games against a competitive Rhode Island team and Cleveland State, they've made a combined 59 of 100 field goal attempts including 17 of 31 from 3-point range. Maryland has several threats threats on the inside including Robert Carter Jr. and Diamond Stone, and defenses tend to forget – or choose to pay less attention to – its weapons on the outside. Jared Nickens caught fire Saturday night hitting four 3-point shots and finished the game with a career-high 16 points. The Terps have seven or so options that could go for double-digit scoring nights on any night, making defensive decision tough. As of Nov. 29 the Terps hold the nation's sixth highest effective field goal percentage – a statistic that measures a made 3-point basket as worth more than a made 2-point basket –at 60 percent per KenPom.
3. North Carolina has few options to contain Maryland's outrageously tall bigs. The Terps' roster stands the third tallest on average in the country at 6'7, per KenPom. While the Tar Heels can start 6'8 forward Justin Jackson on 6'9 Jake Layman and 6'9 forward Brice Johnson on the 6'9 Carter, the big question will be if 6'9 big man Kennedy Meeks can contain 6'11 Diamond Stone or either of his replacements: 6'11 Damonte Dodd or 7'1 Michal Cekovsky. North Carolina also doesn't have a player taller than Meeks at 6'9 in its rotation. How the Heels will look defensively against any combination of the two bigs when Mark Turgeon plays either Dodd or Cekovsky at power forward is more unclear. Will the Tar Heels be forced to play a zone against a red-hot from deep Maryland offense? Perhaps not.
4. Maryland's bench runs deeper than North Carolina's. One of the Terps' biggest strengths is that they're not only good at the top but can play five players off the bench. Nine players in total average 9.7 minutes per game or higher, as opposed to the Tar Heels, which only have seven such players – with a presumably rusty Paige becoming the eighth. Maryland's ability to throw out competent and fresh bodies constantly should tire North Carolina's shallow depth.
5. North Carolina gives up too many 3-point attempts. The Tar Heels are giving up more than 24 attempts per game from deep. That's the 292nd most out of 351 teams. The best indicator for how well a team guards the 3-point line is by the quantity of attempts given up rather than the percent of makes they allow per KenPom. Opponents are shooting 37.8 percent from behind the arc, which is good for 268th best in the country, but its the amount of shots they're giving up that could be the deciding factor against the Terps. Maryland is shooting a fiery 54.4 percent from that area over its past two games.