CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- There was the sweep in 1990, when Maryland was headed for NCAA probation and North Carolina was on the way to its most losses under Dean Smith. There was the tip-in at the buzzer by Walt Williams in 1992, when the Terrapins caught the Tar Heels at the end of a four-game losing streak.
But those victories turned out to have little impact, for Maryland or North Carolina or the rest of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Sweeping the Tar Heels during Gary Williams' first season in College Park did not get the Terps into the NCAA tournament. Beating them again two years later only brought Williams' record against Smith to 3-3.
A victory tonight would be different.
A victory by seventh-ranked Maryland (11-2, 1-0) over lame-duck No. 1 North Carolina (9-1, 0-1) at the Smith Center in this 9 p.m. matchup would mean that the Terps have officially given notice of being contenders for this season's ACC regular-season championship.
"They're still the No. 1 team until the next poll comes out, and obviously you don't get a chance to play the No. 1 team very often," Williams said yesterday before practice in College Park. "To get a road win this early will really help us. And if you beat Carolina at Carolina, it legitimizes your team. People won't have any doubts."
It marks the first time since 1984 that the teams have played each other while both were ranked in the Top 10, when top-ranked North Carolina beat No. 5 Maryland, 74-62, in College Park behind junior All-American Michael Jordan's 24 points and 12 rebounds.
The timing now seems to be in favor of the Terps, who are coming off an 80-67 ACC-opening victory over No. 24 Georgia Tech on Wednesday at Cole Field House. It was the same night that the injury-depleted Tar Heels lost in Raleigh to North Carolina State, 80-70.
"It's an extremely important game for us," said Smith, whose team will be trying to avoid its first 0-2 start in the ACC since 1979-80. "Every team wants to win every game, especially at home. I just want us to play well."
Despite losing five straight and eight of nine to North Carolina, Maryland comes in confident of ending that streak. The Terps know how close they came last year, when some cold outside shooting down the stretch resulted in a 75-70 loss at home and a spirited comeback from an 18-point deficit fell short here in an 95-89 defeat.
"I think everybody [on Maryland] has it in their heads that we're going to beat this team," said junior guard Johnny Rhodes, who will have to play better than he did last season against the Tar Heels, when he scored six points in each game and shot a combined six of 20 from the field. "We haven't beaten North Carolina since I've been here, so if we can get this, it will be very big."
It will also mark the first real head-to-head matchup between two of the country's top centers, Maryland's Joe Smith and North Carolina's Rasheed Wallace. As a freshman, Smith dominated Eric Montross last year, scoring 47 points, pulling down 25 rebounds and prompting the former Tar Heels center to say, "If I had to play against him for four years, it would be scary."
Smith knows that it will be much different against Wallace than Montross, more like his matchups against Marcus Camby of Massachusetts or Tim Duncan of Wake Forest, players who are just as quick and love to block shots. But he also knows that he can't get caught up in an individual matchup. .
"I can't go into the game thinking it's me against him," said Smith. "We want to get everyone else involved in the offense. And if he comes in thinking just about me, it could be a long night for Carolina."
While Maryland will try to go inside with hopes of getting Wallace or sophomore forward Jerry Stackhouse in foul trouble, the Terps will likely have shoot well from the outside to have any chance of pulling an upset. They will also likely see some zone, as they did for a while against Georgia Tech Wednesday night.
In last season's five-point loss to North Carolina at home, Maryland missed 14 of 15 three-point shots. In the narrow loss here, the Terps hit nine of 16 threes that helped fuel a furious comeback and gave Maryland have a chance to take the lead with a little over a minute left.
"If they're smart, they'll look at the tapes of last year's game [at Cole Field] and see that we didn't score for about six minutes when they were playing zone," said junior point guard Duane Simpkins. Tonight's game is the first for the Terps on an opponent's home court this season. It also begins a two-game ACC road trip. Though Maryland will fly home immediately after playing the Tar Heels, they will leave Monday night for Tallahassee, where they will play Florida State Tuesday.
"At home, you have the crowd to help you, but sometimes that makes you start a little flat," said Simpkins. "On the road, it's just you against them, and you just pour everything you have into it."