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Game Preview: #9 UNC vs #2 Maryland

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Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

ACC/B1G Challenge - North Carolina vs Maryland, 9:30 PM, ESPN

He's baaaaccccck.

Obviously the focus of this game will be on the return of Marcus Paige. The preseason ACC Player of the Year sees his first action of the season after sitting six games with a broken bone in his right hand. To paraphrase Forrest Gump, a player returning from injury is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get. Some players hit their stride in the first game back, play well then have a bit of a letdown later. For other players there is clear rust to shake off not to mention some level of anxiety and hesitancy because of the injury.  There is no clear indicator which type of player Paige will be versus Maryland.

The other element at work is the team adjusting to Paige's return. The adjustment here shouldn't present any major issues and in fact should lift the team as a whole. For one, it's not like the Tar Heels didn't have the entire preseason and the "secret scrimmage" with a healthy Paige. This is also mostly the same team that gelled so nicely at the end of last season when Paige was fully healthy. That being said, Justin Jackson's role will change some. Jackson spent the last three games grabbing the bull by the horns and leading the team with a trio of 20+ point games. In theory, Paige's return means less defensive attention on Jackson. On the other hand, Jackson shouldn't recede too much from being a primary offensive option. In certain situations Jackson will defer to Paige but for UNC to reach its full potential they both have to good. Having another capable three point shooter should make life easier for the interior duo of Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson since packing the lane would be unwise.

The key benefit may come on the defensive end and Paige returns to an immediate test. Maryland's Melo Trimble is one of the top point guards in the country. Trimble will drive the ball and keeping him out of the lane will be difficult for a UNC team that hasn't had great success in this regard, even with Paige last season. Trimble has a free throw rate of 65.5 and hits 78% of his shots at the line. So far this season, Trimble is drawing 6.1 fouls per 40 minutes and has an assist rate of 26.8%. Needless to say he will be a handful and if UNC's defense collapses on him, Maryland has enough three point shooters to make the Tar Heels pay.

Also worth watching will be the battle on the interior where UNC's big men will be tested by a trio of Maryland post players, all 6-11 or taller. Georgia Tech transfer Robert Carter will also be a factor. The 6-9 junior leads the team with a DR% of 24.0 and has at least eight rebounds in four of Maryland's six games so far. Maryland's interior play means Johnson, Meeks and Hicks cannot afford to be timid early and staying out of foul trouble will be crucial.

UNC 82 Maryland 72