Indifference has replaced bitterness – with surprising swiftness given the initial sense of betrayal. There’s little talk anymore in ACC circles of the Maryland Terrapins, who arrive at the Smith Center Tuesday to face North Carolina in the headline matchup of this year’s 17th Big 10/ACC Challenge.
Less than 2 years have passed since Maryland, a founding member in 1953, made its final basketball appearance in conference competition, losing to Florida State at Greensboro in the 2014 ACC tournament.
In a move every bit as stunning as the body blows the ACC delivered to the Big East via expansion, in November 2012 university president Wallace D. Loh announced the Terrapins were moving to the Big 10 to “ensure the financial stability of Maryland athletics for decades to come.” The shift took effect last season, and appears to have worked financially for the Terps. A reported $21 million athletic deficit in 2012 is projected to vanish no later than 2019, even after the school paid the ACC $31.4 million to exit.
Mark Turgeon’s fifth Terp squad, 6-0 and ranked second in the country, arrives at Chapel Hill just as North Carolina, the preseason No. 1, is bolstered by the return from injury of Marcus Paige, its leader and best player. Maryland is led by Duke exile Rasheed Sulaimon, Georgia Tech transfer Robert Carter, ACC holdover Jake Layman, and two youngsters with improbably evocative names – 6-11, 255-pound freshman Diamond Stone and sophomore playmaker Melo Trimble, pacing the team in points, assists and steals through last Friday.
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The teams met most recently in Feb. 2014, resulting in one of UNC’s 19 Smith Center victories over Maryland against eight defeats. This season’s collision comes two months shy of the 30th anniversary of the teams’ first and most notable encounter in the new building. That game produced a shocking upset, an inbounds play for the ages, and one of the top scoring performances in the building’s history by Len Bias, the greatest forgotten player of the ACC’s modern era.
“Len was special, no question,” Keith Gatlin, a former teammate, says of the 1985 and 1986 ACC Player of the Year, one of only 10 players to win the award twice. “He was blessed with God-gifted physical ability, but he was also blessed to have a God-gifted jump shot.”
Athletic and well-muscled, aggressive and skilled, the 6-8 forward scored with breathtaking ease, pacing Maryland in point production both years he was voted the ACC’s top player.
Bias’ quintessential performance came in January 1986 at Duke against a team en route to Mike Krzyzewski’s first Final Four. Without straining to score, and in an era without 3-point field goals, Bias took only 20 shots but hit all 13 free throws and had 41 of his team’s 68 points. A career .536 shooter from the floor, Bias scored with such smooth, understated efficiency, attacked by jumper and dribble with such unrelenting intensity, press room observers at Durham were dumbfounded when they saw his point total in the box score. No other player has ever gotten that many points against one of Krzyzewski’s Blue Devil squads.
What’s in a name?
But good as Bias was, the Terrapins struggled throughout an ’86 season that began with their informally-spoken coach requesting that media members and university associates refer to him as Charles, his given first name. Down the stretch, though, his team in danger of falling from NCAA tournament consideration, the 17-year Maryland coach reconsidered, giving the green light to use of his long-time nickname. “Call me whatever you want,” said Lefty Driesell.
The Terps were 14-11, 3-7 in the conference when they arrived in late February at North Carolina’s shiny, domed basketball palace. The hosts were 25-1, the nation’s unanimous top-ranked team behind center Brad Daugherty, ultimately the top pick in the 1986 NBA draft, forward Joe Wolf, and guards Kenny Smith, Steve Hale and Jeff Lebo.
The Tar Heels, unbeaten in a month playing at their new home and No.1 in every poll since the season started, jumped ahead at the outset and held a 9-point edge with just under 3 minutes remaining in the game. But Bias, responsible for the majority of Maryland’s scoring in the first half, had 6 of the Terps’ 10 points down the stretch, including a momentum-turning steal and reverse dunk off an inbounds pass with 2:46 to go.
“He was incredible,” recalls Gatlin, these days the basketball coach at Wesleyan Christian Academy in High Point. Among the alums of his program is UNC sophomore Theo Pinson.
The game reached overtime, where the last of Bias’ 35 points, a jump hook in the lane that Dean Smith called “unbelievable”, put the Terps ahead to stay. “If he ain’t player of the world, then there ain’t no players around,” said Driesell, a Duke grad. “I’ve had players score 50 points for me. Fred Hetzel scored 50 points for me (at Davidson). But I’ve never seen an exhibition like this.” Only LaSalle’s Lionel Simmons has scored more points (37 in 1988) for a Smith Center visitor.
Yet even after Gatlin hit a pair of free throws with 7 seconds left, giving Maryland a 3-point lead, there remained a chance for one of the improbable comebacks for which Smith’s teams were famous. Until, that is, a long UNC pass went awry, giving Maryland possession under the Heels’ basket.
Loss, then tailspin
In scouting UNC, the Terps noticed Carolina defenders sometimes turned their backs on the inbounder. So, when the defense was set, Gatlin, who’d successfully executed the maneuver in practice, threw the ball off the back of Kenny Smith, the nearest Tar Heel. In the blink of an eye Gatlin stepped inbounds, caught the carom and stunningly laid the ball in the basket. Six seconds later the game was over and Maryland had a 77-72 victory.
North Carolina went into a tailspin, losing 3 of its next 4 games, including a meeting with the Terps in the ACC tournament. Maryland, one of 6 ACC teams (of 8) invited to the NCAAs, won a tournament game before falling against UNLV. UNC lost in the Sweet 16 to eventual national champ Louisville, Maryland’s 2015 replacement as an ACC member.
Bias was chosen a consensus All-American and repeated as a unanimous All-ACC selection. In mid-June he was taken second in the 1986 NBA draft by the Boston Celtics. But two days later Bias, 22, collapsed in his College Park dorm suite and died from a cocaine overdose. The incident sparked a national outcry against drug abuse.
“I don’t think he will ever get his just due,” says Gatlin, insisting he never saw his teammate use drugs. “That’s the thing I try to tell kids when I’m speaking. If you’re basing his talent on basketball, then it’s a no-brainer: he’s a first-time great Hall of Famer and whatever you say. But if you put in the way he lost his life, the off the court thing, then I think people, that weighs on their opinion.”
That “thing off the court” helped cost Driesell his job five months later. Successor Bob Wade, fired after posting one winning season in 3, left behind severe NCAA sanctions. Alumnus Gary Williams rebuilt the program, taking Maryland to unprecedented heights – 11 straight NCAA appearances from 1994 through 2004, its first Final Four in 2001, and its sole NCAA title in 2002. The Hall of Famer retired after the 2011 season. Williams was replaced by Turgeon, whose Terps are 0-7 against North Carolina and now just another opponent stirring faded memories.