COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Back in the day (OK, 1992), Baltimore native and then-Florida State guard dubbed the fans inside North Carolina’s Dean Smith Center a “wine and cheese crowd.” The reputation took hold shortly thereafter, and ever since the Tar Heels’ faithful have worked to rid themselves of that damning label.
Aside from a few lapses against mid-major non-conference foes, they have. And with Dec. 1, 2015, representing the first “significant” matchup in Chapel Hill, N.C. this season, well, the light-blue-and-white-clad aficionados figure to be out in full force. Especially since the Heels will be facing a touted Maryland squad returning to UNC for the first time since leaving the ACC.
“I think [the environment] will be different just because of what they say [about UNC]. I thought last year Indiana was one of the toughest places to play, but they say UNC is,” said Terps’ point guard Melo Trimble of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge showdown between No. 2 UMD and No. 9 UNC. “So I’m excited. It should be a great environment.”
Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon mentioned Nov. 30 he “had to try some things” to help his team prepare for charged Chapel Hill. Including pumping extra sound into Xfinity Center during practice the last couple days.
“He didn’t pick [the music],” quipped Trimble, a wry smile on his face. “He played a lot of music I like -- a lot of Future.”
A rather apropos choice considering the rap group Future’s No. 1 hit is called “Jumpman,” an ode to Michael Jordan and North Carolina.
A mere coincidence, we’re sure.
“It should be fun,” Turgeon said. “I like playing great teams, and North Carolina is a great team with a great coach. It’s been a highly-anticipated game since it came out on the schedule. It’s the game of the night, and it should be a great environment. It’s good for us. It’ll let us know where we stand as a team.”
Where the Terps stand, in the national pollsters’ eyes, is 6-0 and a few ticks behind Kentucky for the top spot in the country. But to the naked eye, Maryland remains a work in progress, flashing plenty of potential but fighting through fits of inconsistency.
Take UMD’s latest game against Cleveland State Nov. 28, which served as a microcosm of Maryland’s season. The Terps ended up winning 80-63, but once again they started sluggishly and even trailed the Vikings late during the first half. Eventually, though, UMD turned on the jets and ran away from its mid-major foe, shooting a scintillating 58 percent in the process.
“This time of year, we have so far to go,” Turgeon said. “We’re getting better and we’ve gotten a lot better, but we have so much work to do and [we’re] constantly working on [us]. So hopefully we’ll be better on the defensive end and offensively taking care of the ball. And if you do those things, well, hopefully that will give your team a chance to win a close game at the end.”
Turgeon specifically harped on Maryland’s interior defensive effort. With the likes of 6-foot-10-plus post players such as Diamond Stone, Michal Cekovsky and Damonte Dodd guarding the paint, in addition to power forward Robert Carter, the Terps figured to be among the foremost rim-protecting teams around. But Cleveland State ended up shooting 53 percent and scoring 40 paint points.
“I’d like for us to be a little more aggressive on the defensive end. We’re not quite as good defensively as we should be down [in the paint],” Turgeon said. “But we were getting some over-the-back fouls, some illegal-screen fouls, and we’re trying to clean those up... I imagine our post players will get used to the way fouls are getting called.”
“It’s just effort,” Terps’ senior wing Jake Layman added. “If we just show Coach we can play with intensity, I think we should be good.”
Layman, in particular, has been in a funk for stretches this year. In the Vikings’ bout, he disappeared at times, attempting just two field goals and scoring seven points. Trimble, meanwhile, was only 2-of-6 from the field, preferring to defer rather than take charge per usual.
“I think we have so many scorers, we’re going to be hard to guard either way, no matter who is hot and who’s not,” Layman said. “But I think for me and Melo, we just have to stay aggressive. But I think passing up shots for better shots is what this team needs to do.”
Right now, Robert Carter is who’s hot. The Georgia Tech transfer has been Maryland’s most effective weapon all year, and he showed why once again Nov. 28. In 21 minutes, Carter tallied a game-high 17 points, including canning a pair of triples, while adding eight rebounds and three assists. He’s averaging 13 points and seven boards through six games.
“He’s been terrific,” Turgeon said. “My gosh, the last two games he’s been really efficient. It started in practice and kind of carried over to the games. He can really shoot. When he shoots it like that, it makes it even harder for teams to guard us… I don’t expect him to make every shot, but he’s been terrific.”
Now, Carter and the Terps will test their mettle against a blueblood, an old foe in the heart of ACC country. North Carolina (5-1), the preseason No. 1, will host its former rival in a primetime 9:35 p.m. affair.
Of course, Carolina has pretty much dominated the series between the two ACC charter members, the Tar Heels holding a 122-57 advantage over the Terps, including victories in each of the last eight meetings. The squads last met Feb. 4, 2014, a 75-63 UNC win in the Smith Center, a building where Carolina has knocked off Maryland 58 times in 75 attempts.
“I’m glad we’ve got some upperclassmen and a real poised sophomore too,” Turgeon said. “That helps going into this game. It’s not a normal regular-season road game, because it’s our first [road] game in a tough environment. But we have a lot of veteran guys, and that should help.”
That “real poised sophomore,” Trimble, has been pitted against a number of star counterparts during his brief college career -- from Yogi Ferrell to D’Angelo Russell to Travis Trice to Bronson Koenig last year to Georgetown’s D’Vanuntes Smith-Rivera this season. The Terps’ floor general will have yet another intriguing matchup Dec. 1 in North Carolina’s Marcus Paige, who will be lacing up for the first time in 2015-16 after recovering from a broken right hand.
Paige may or may not have to shake off some rust, but the junior point is a potent threat Trimble and the Terps cannot take lightly. Throughout his three-year career, the 6-2 guard has averaged 13 points and four assists, while he’s known for his solid perimeter defense as well.
Trimble, for his part, said he’s “not too worried” about the individual matchup since he’s more concerned with Carolina in general. But Turgeon acknowledged Paige adds another dimension his squad has to prepare for.
“[Paige] just adds more depth to an already deep team they have. Obviously great experience; he’s played in some big games,” Turgeon said. “He can get them buckets. One thing they have struggled with is shooting threes, so bringing [Paige] back helps them in that area.”
Paige should provide a boost, but the Heels, aside from a 71-67 loss at Northern Iowa, have been just fine without him thus far. They’re coming off back-to-back victories against Northwestern and Kansas State in the CBE Hall of Fame Classic, and have pretty much dominated in each of their five triumphs.
Boasting a potent, wide wing-spanned frontcourt, the Heels tend to own the paint. A pair of 6-10 forwards, the burly Kennedy Meeks and the sinewy Brice Johnson, pose a major problem inside. Meeks is averaging 14.3 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, while Johnson puts up 13 and 10. Meanwhile, 6-8 forward Justin Jackson leads the team at 14.7 points per game, chipping in four assists and four boards a game too. And 6-6 wing Theo Pinson may only score 7.2 a night, but he’s the Heels’ most prolific 3-point threat (43 percent) and assist man (over 5 dimes per).
Not to mention North Carolina goes about eight or nine players deep, with backup point guard Joel Berry ably filling in for Paige with 11.5 points and 3.7 assists per.
“Matchups are pretty simple to be honest for you. Pretty much up and down, one through nine, we have a pretty good idea how we’re going to match up [with UNC],” Turgeon said. “The thing that makes it difficult is they have six or seven McDonald’s All-Americans.”
The good news for the Terps is they can match Carolina’s length. UMD has spent much of 2015-16 chasing around smallish, guard-oriented teams, who have worn them out running the floor and stretching the defense.
“I think we’ll be able to play big. They do have a lot of big guys, and I think it will be better for our offensive flow,” Layman said.
Turgeon concurred, noting how UMD played its best game all year against another fairly long-limbed opponent, Rhode Island.
“It should help,” Turgeon said of taking on a taller foe. “We were built for games like this. … It should allow us to play our big lineup for 40 minutes if we stay out of foul trouble … It’s a good matchup for us.”
Maybe in theory, but make no mistake: Carolina is no Rhode Island.
Those big bodies aren’t exactly plodders; the Heels can move.
“There’s a reason they’re a preseason No. 1. We’re playing a Carolina team that likes to play fast, likes to get up and down,” Turgeon said. “We really don’t want to play like that all 40 minutes. So we’ve got to try to control tempo as best we can.”
As a whole, UNC is averaging 81.3 points per game, shoots 48 percent from the field and has close to a 2-to-1 assists-to-turnover ratio. Defensively, the Tar Heels are holding opponents to 67 points a night, 39.7 percent shooting and have forced 72 turnovers. They also own a plus-13 rebounding advantage.
That said, UNC has had its issues beyond the arc, shooting only 32.1 percent from distance and allowing foes to convert 37.8 percent of their 3-point attempts.
“That’s something we’ve been working on as a team, attacking and getting open looks [from three],” Trimble said. “I don’t think we’ve reached our full potential. There’s a lot of areas we can get better at . . .. Tomorrow is going to test us.”
That’s for sure. But if there’s one thing Maryland has been this year, it’s resilient. They’ve absorbed jabs from mid-majors and emerged with double-digit victories. They’ve taken an uppercut from Georgetown and still had enough talent to overcome.
“We step up when we have to,” Turgeon said. “Are we where we want to be? No. But that’s why you play the game. I can’t promise you we’re going to play great, but we’ll be ready. We’ll be ready, we’ll be prepared, we’ll be excited. Every player, coach, manager will be jacked up for 9:30 [Dec. 1].”