COLLEGE PARK - The Maryland Terrapins have been holed up in practice long enough. They have tried to improve the passing and movement and shot selection in their half-court offense. They have attacked shortcomings at the free-throw line. They have talked about sustaining hard-nosed defense and first-rate effort for an entire game.
Now, after playing just twice since their Atlantic Coast Conference opener on Dec. 28, it's time for the league's youngest team to grow up in a hurry.
Starting with tonight's visit by No. 9 North Carolina, things get serious for the Terps (9-3, 0-1). Over the next 15 days, which include visits to No. 12 Georgia Tech and No. 4 Wake Forest wrapped around next week's home game against second-ranked Duke, Maryland will face four teams in the upper half of the Top 25.
Starting with their confrontation with a revived North Carolina (10-2, 1-1) team under first-year coach Roy Williams, the season will accelerate at a dizzying pace. It will include 15 straight regular-season ACC contests over the next eight weeks. It will include danger wherever the Terps travel, and the dire need to protect their home court.
By the time Maryland gets through this double meat grinder - the last one before the conference expands to 11 teams next year - the Terps will know if they are good enough to play in their 11th consecutive NCAA tournament.
But Maryland's first order of business is to don the blinders and stare only at the present.
"Out of the 15 games we have left, we could play 10 of them against Top 25 teams. We're going to be the underdogs in a lot of those games. It's crazy. But you can't look at that. There's too many good teams out there," Maryland coach Gary Williams said.
"You can look at one game. That's hard to do that, especially with young players. But if you don't get ready to play every night, you're in trouble. Why look past anybody?"
No one in the Maryland locker room is underestimating the Tar Heels, even though they lack depth and junior forward Jawad Williams (15.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg) is not expected to play. He suffered a broken nose during Sunday's victory over Georgia Tech, two weeks after suffering a concussion. He also was diagnosed Monday with post-traumatic headaches.
Forget the fact that the Terps have beaten Carolina four times in their past five meetings and have abused the Tar Heels in College Park lately. Throw out last year's 40-point rout at Comcast Center, and the 112-79 pounding Maryland inflicted the year before at Cole Field House.
The Terps have since undergone a roster makeover and have played with the inconsistency that reflects a team in the hands of sophomores and freshmen. Tenacious and focused enough to outlast then-No. 1 Florida on its home floor. Uninspired and careless enough to lay an egg against unranked Florida State in Tallahassee.
The Tar Heels also have been an up-and-down team. They are 2-2 against ranked opponents, with a home loss to Wake Forest in triple overtime and a 61-56 clunker at Kentucky. They also struggled to beat Cleveland State and Akron. But they are not the squad that brought shame to Chapel Hill with a combined 36 losses in the previous two seasons, ultimately costing coach Matt Doherty his job.
North Carolina has maybe the league's most explosive player in sophomore point guard Raymond Felton, a pure scorer in sophomore swingman Rashad McCants and a force in the post in 6-foot-9, 260-pound sophomore center Sean May, who ranks fourth in the ACC in scoring (17.1 ppg) and second in rebounding (10.3).
May, who missed the conference season a year ago after breaking a bone in his left foot, is the most polished center in the league, although he is not in the best shape yet and was bothered by calf cramps in Sunday's victory over Georgia Tech.
"[May] changes that team," Williams said. "He automatically makes their perimeter people better, and he's not just a good scorer. He can pass, and he's got great hands."
"Carolina has a lot of good individual talent, but they're playing together. They're taking better shots and playing better basketball this year," said Maryland sophomore point guard John Gilchrist, who will engage Felton. "If we can shut down Sean May, it could be a long night for them."
That means inside players such as senior center Jamar Smith and freshman forward Ekene Ibekwe - who could start his second game in place of struggling sophomore Travis Garrison - hope to use their quickness to get May into foul trouble.
Ultimately, tonight could look like a track meet at times. Both teams love to force turnovers and score in transition. Both teams also are still fashioning thin rotations. The absence of Jawad Williams, who will be replaced by sophomore David Noel, has rendered Carolina essentially a six-man team. The Tar Heels might prefer to slow things down and allow May to control stretches of the game.
"We're not very deep. They're not very deep. We're really still searching. They're really still searching," said Roy Williams, who won 418 games in 15 years at Kansas, is making his first appearance as a head coach in College Park and is 0-2 against Gary Williams.
"Both of us have shown that we can be good. But both of us have shown that we can be pretty ugly. We've already given up one home game. We need to steal one. I think it's a game that probably will come down to the wire."
Matchup: No. 9 North Carolina (10-2, 1-1) vs. Maryland (9-3, 0-1)
Site: Comcast Center, College Park