We’ve already seen several great college basketball matchups this season, but Indiana-North Carolina on Wednesday night might top the list.
These two programs have outstanding rosters in 2016-17, but their history goes way back. A quick look:
All-Time series: Indiana leads 8-6
NCAA tournament record: Indiana leads 2-1
Last result: UNC defeated Indiana 101-86 in the 2016 Sweet 16
1984: Indiana upset No. 1 North Carolina in the Regional Semifinals of the 1984 NCAA tournament. The Hoosiers held Michael Jordan to 13 points in his final collegiate game.
1981: Indiana defeated North Carolina in the national championship game behind star point guard Isiah Thomas. UNC defeated IU earlier that season in Chapel Hill.
For those really wanting to get hyped for tonight’s game, the entire 1984 upset is on YouTube. Current ESPN color commentator Dan Dakich became a cult hero that day — he was IU’s primary defender on Jordan, who struggled for the Tar Heels.
When these two teams get together, wild stuff happens. Are we in for more of the same tonight? Let’s break down this heavyweight matchup.
No. 3 North Carolina (7-0) vs. No. 13 Indiana (4-1), 9:15 p.m. ET, ESPN
What Indiana needs to do to win:
For starters, the Hoosiers must clean up the defensive glass. North Carolina fetches an astounding 46.6 percent of its own misses, which ranks second in the country — perhaps no team in America possesses the combination of size and athleticism the Tar Heels do.
In recent years, the Hoosiers haven’t been a great defensive rebounding team. But they rank 16th in the country in that category this season, and it’s going to need to be a collective effort tonight. UNC crashes the glass as well as anyone, but if it comes up empty, that opens up fast-break opportunities galore for the Hoosiers. And IU might have the best transition attack in all of college basketball.
Indiana primarily uses OG Anunoby at power forward, and if Tom Crean does so tonight, his defensive stopper will have a unique challenge: muscling up against Isaiah Hicks (or Tony Bradley) inside.
Hicks has been superb this season – he’s averaging 14.6 points in just 26.7 minutes of action per night – so this is a huge (pun intended) test for Anunoby. The Hoosier sophomore is touted as a plus defender at positions one through four; he separates himself from every other college basketball player in that regard.
Then again, in the small-ball era, most teams don’t have a power forward close to the size of Hicks. In reality, he’s a center. We’ve seen Anunoby lock up perimeter scorers, but can he help keep North Carolina’s gargantuan front line off of the glass? Maybe, but this is a new test for him. Keep an eye on the big vs. small(ish) battle all game long.
While Crean might worry about second and third-chance opportunities, on the other end, his five-out attack should present problems for the Tar Heel defense. Hicks, Bradley and Kennedy Meeks would much rather stay near the hoop; that might not be possible against the Hoosiers. Thomas Bryant and Anunoby will willingly step out to the 3-point line and jack – if they’re hot from deep, what is UNC’s answer? Bottom line: tonight’s game presents a fascinating case study of bully-ball vs. small-ball.
Lastly, James Blackmon has to score like he’s been scoring all season long. He’s questionable going into tonight’s game, but is on track to play, per Crean. If the Hoosiers can hang their hats on any positional edge in this game, it’s at the shooting guard spot; Kenny Williams is a nice 3-and-D player, but he’s by far the least proven of North Carolina’s starters.
For as great as Blackmon is on offense, he struggles defensively, to put it kindly. Williams presents a convenient hiding spot – he’s capable of hitting open 3’s, but UNC will rarely use him as a pick-and-roll ball-handler; as long as Blackmon stays alert, he should be fine. Indiana can become leaky defensively against teams that have two dynamic wings – North Carolina is a scary team, but wing depth isn’t its strength.
What North Carolina needs to do to win:
In short, make Indiana regret playing small. The Hoosiers are athletic, but the size difference is significant; behind Bryant, Indiana doesn’t have much depth at the center position.
If Bryant picks up two early fouls, for instance, you’ll have to love North Carolina’s chances. On the flip side, if Hicks or Meeks pick up two early ones, Roy Williams can insert Bradley into the game and not miss a beat. Joel Berry will be crucial here; the Tar Heel point guard is having the best season of his career, and he’s getting to the free-throw line more than ever (4.3 times per game). Berry is a threat from deep, but it would be in his best interest to try to attack the rim in this tilt.
One major advantage Indiana has that we haven’t discussed yet: the Hoosiers are at home, where they’re extremely tough. North Carolina has to take care of the ball in this game; UNC coughs up the rock on 19 percent of its possessions this season, which ranks outside of the top 100 in the country. When you think about it, that stat makes sense: Berry is the only legitimate ball-handler in the starting lineup, and you sacrifice some ball security when your roster is so massive.
Nate Britt has struggled to find his footing this season, but Williams might try to get him some extra burn tonight in an effort to get another ball-handler on the floor. Look at any North Carolina box score, and part of the reason it wins is because the Tar Heels generate way more possessions than their opponents. That’s the benefit of having a historic offensive rebounding rate. If they cut down on turnovers, the Heels will have even more possessions. It’s difficult to stay poised in an arena like Assembly Hall, but if you’re a great team, it’s essential.
Expect all of the former Indiana and North Carolina greats to be watching tonight. It’s November, but this game feels bigger than that. Tipoff can’t arrive soon enough.