In the loss, No. 2 Maryland finally proves that they’re a contender

AP Photo/Gerry Broome
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — It’s going to be as weird to write this as it is to read, but Maryland, the previously undefeated No. 2 team in the country, proved more in their loss to No. 9 North Carolina than they have in any game they’ve played this season.

By a mile.

Let’s be honest here.

With a healthy Marcus Paige — with the Marcus Paige that showed up on Tuesday night, his first game of his senior season — the Tar Heels may very well be the best team in the country. Current No. 1 Kentucky has a strong argument for the top spot the way they manhandled a good Duke team, and no one in the country has been more impressive through three weeks than No. 3 Michigan State, but the Tar Heels were the consensus No. 1 team in the NBCSports.com preseason top 25. They were the preseason No. 1 team in the AP Poll and tied for the top spot in the preseason Coaches Poll with the Wildcats.

[RELATED: J. Cole, alley-oops and Marcus Paige]

Those projections were made under the assumption that Paige would be playing, and the reason that UNC has that one loss on their résumé is because Paige missed the season’s first six games with a broken bone in his hand. I truly believe that, by the way. The Tar Heels lost a road game to a tough, veteran, well-coached Northern Iowa team when they blew a 16-point second half lead because they didn’t have the leadership and big-play ability that Paige provides. They lost because they couldn’t stop the bleeding, and Paige is their band-aid.

So let’s ignore the number next to UNC’s name for time being.

Maryland went punch-for-punch on the road against the best team in the country, a former ACC rival. They overcame their early jitters — the Terps committed 12 derpy turnovers in the first 12 minutes of the game — and fought back from a self-inflicted 13-point first half deficit. They made enough big plays and big shots in a raucous, hostile environment to take the lead in the second half despite the fact that the Tar Heels were playing well.

Moral victories don’t mean much for an NCAA tournament résumé, but they sure as hell matter when it comes to national perception.

“I don’t like our team,” Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon told reporters after the game. “I love our team. I didn’t love our team until tonight. It sounds funny. We were 6-0 and lost a game, but my guys showed me a lot tonight.”

After a rough start — he committed four of those 12 early turnovers — Melo Trimble was absolutely sensational. He was unstoppable in ball-screen actions, finishing with 23 points and 12 assists while shooting 8-for-14 from the floor and 4-for-5 from three. He accounted for 20 of the 30 field goals that the Terps made on the night, including a stretch from the end of the first half through late in the second half where he was responsible for 14 of Maryland’s 15 field goals.

Duke transfer Rasheed Sulaimon was excellent as well, finishing with 18 points and three assists, hitting a number of big threes during Maryland’s second half surge. Robert Carter showed off the array of skills that has him drawing interest from NBA teams as well.

“I learned a lot about them tonight,” Turgeon said. “Melo Trimble and Rasheed Sulaimon were warriors out there tonight.”

[MORE: How Mark Turgeon came to love his team]

That’s relevant because Maryland has not been all that impressive early on this season. They were down 14 in the second to Rider at home. They were down seven with less than six minutes left against Illinois State. They needed a late run to hold on and beat a Georgetown team that lost at home to Radford three days earlier. There were plenty of reasons to wonder whether or not the Terps, whose success last season was a direct result of their knack for winning close games, were overrated entering the year.

Not anymore.

Not after that performance against that team in that venue.

But that doesn’t mean Maryland is without concern.

The Terps played far from a perfect game. It starts with the 22 turnovers they committed, an absurdly high number against a team that isn’t exactly known for their defensive prowess. Maryland was rattled early on. Jake Layman looked overwhelmed by the moment, finishing 1-for-5 from the floor with four fouls and three turnovers, and the question remains whether or not he’s going to be as effective this season as we was last season. Layman did his most efficient work last year playing as an undersized four in a small-ball lineup for the Terps. With Carter and Diamond Stone available this year, the Terps have enough depth to play two big men together, meaning Layman is going to spend the majority of his time at the three. Can he guard the quicker small forwards he’ll be facing? Can he be as effective offensively when he’s being guarded by a guy with similar physical tools?

Speaking of Stone, he showed flashes of why he may be a one-and-done prospect. He struggled on the defensive end and, for much of the game, looked like a freshman big man playing his first true road game. Jaylen Brantley still isn’t trusted enough by the Maryland coaching staff to be their third guard, the guy that spells Trimble and Sulaimon, who combined to play 73 of a possible 80 minutes.

Those are questions that still need to be answered.

Maryland is far from a finished product at this point.

But there’s time to work through those kinks. We are, after all, just three weeks into a season that stretches for five months.

What we do know now is that Maryland can handle themselves in a tough road environment, and that something like a 13-point deficit to the best team in the country isn’t going to keep them from having a chance to win.

In other words, we now have actual on-the-court evidence that the Terps can compete for a national title.