The next game is always the biggest game of the year, if you listen to coaches Bob Wade and Dean Smith, but tonight's Maryland-North Carolina game at 9 at Cole Field House comes close to being just that.

This will be the first Atlantic Coast Conference game for the Tar Heels (11-1), who have beaten Illinois and UCLA on the road and Syracuse in the season-opening Hall of Fame Classic. They would still be atop the polls were it not for a Dec. 5 loss at Vanderbilt and are ranked second this week.

"Of course, we're overranked at two," Smith said when asked if it was less pressure now that they aren't No. 1.

"As far as I'm concerned, they are No. 1," said Wade, who hastened to add that he thinks that of every opponent.

"Maryland is in the category of teams that could be ranked at the top also," Smith said.

The Terrapins (9-3 overall, 2-0 in the ACC) are coming off an 68-53 victory over Clemson.

"We just planned to win a game {in the ACC}," Wade said. "Winning two has exceeded my expectations for this team. I still think we're playing hard but now we're able to finish off games we were not able to last year, due to fatigue or experience down the stretch. We have people to protect the ball and they are now able to get the job done in the last five minutes of the game."

The Terrapins continually have said they think they can play with the best teams in the conference. Wake Forest (0-2), which Maryland beat in its first conference game, likely will struggle all season. Clemson (0-3) probably will beat some teams in the second half of the season as its young players develop, but the Tigers probably won't finish in the top half of the conference. But with North Carolina tonight and a Saturday trip to Durham to face seventh-ranked Duke, Maryland will find out just how far it has come.

Sophomore forward J.R. Reid leads North Carolina in scoring (19.4 points) and rebounding (9.0). Assuming he doesn't miss the elevator and then the bus from the hotel as he did last year, he will lead the Tar Heels onto the court.

"Early in this season," Smith said of Reid, "I think he had the feeling that he had to carry the load and, consequently, was forcing things. Some of that was due to all the preseason attention he got. But lately he's been letting the game come to him, and he's just tremendous offensively when we get the ball to him. He's passed it back outside for some easy three-point attempts. He's been getting inside, scoring and getting fouled. He's improved as far as getting position inside.

"He's definitely improved on his rebounding and defense, but he needs more concentration on defense. We're going to try to cut down on his turnovers. We like him to burst out on the dribble {on the fast break}, but then we want him to pitch it ahead to a ball handler. When he does that, he's a tremendous player."

This is not the biggest or the most experienced team Smith has had, but it's hardly a rag-tag outfit. Besides Reid, senior Ranzino Smith and junior Jeff Lebo are starting in the back court, with sophomore Scott Williams at center and Steve Bucknall at the other forward. Lebo is the team's second-leading scorer with an average of 13.6 points a game, while Williams is getting 13.3 points and 6.3 rebounds per contest.

"When you have a horse like J.R. inside and an experienced guy handling the ball and an experienced shooter," Wade said, "you're still in a strong position."

Wade has used three guards more in the last couple of games, and might do so again tonight, especially because the Terrapins are a bit thin in front court reserves, with Rodney Walker hobbling on a sprained ankle and Cedric Lewis out with mononucleosis. The combination of guards usually has had Rudy Archer at the point and Steve Hood, Keith Gatlin or Teyon McCoy at the other guards. Wade's starting lineup probably will include Brian Williams at center, Tony Massenburg and Derrick Lewis at forward, and Archer on the point.

Hood has been starting at the off-guard spot, but Gatlin has played well in the two games he has been in since rejoining the active roster and has practiced more with Archer the past couple of days. Wade declined to say who he will start, but it wouldn't be a great surprise if it's Gatlin.

"We can utilize our three-guard offense," Wade said. "Anytime you can get Keith Gatlin in the game it helps because of his experience and he's been through this before. He knows what their tendencies are as far as their pressure defense. He's a great guy to have on the court."

As with any team, the Terrapins would like a balance in points from inside and out. But they also need points from the foul line. They were just 13 of 25 against Clemson, and are hitting 63 percent for the year. North Carolina has made made 74.2 percent of its free throws. If the game is close, as last year's second game was before North Carolina won, 93-86, that could be the difference.

"One key is that we have to do a good job of fighting their half-court pressure," Wade said. "We can't turn the ball over like we did last year. Defensively, we have to put pressure on their guards and play good post defense on guys like J.R. and Scott Williams. If we do that, we'll be right there in the ball game."