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ACC-Big Ten Challenge Preview: UNC-Indiana

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The Tar Heels look to extend their hot start

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-East Regional-North Carolina vs Indiana Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

North Carolina (7-0, #3, #3 Ken Pomeroy) at Indiana (4-1, #13, #19 KenPom), 9:15pm Wednesday, November 30.

Line: UNC -3

TV: ESPN

I’m suspicious of all of you, and you need to stop it right this minute.

You know exactly who you are.

You vaguely remember that Indiana was the team the Tar Heels beat in the Sweet 16 last season with relative ease (remember Marcus’ 4 straight 3s?). And if you’re hardcore, you probably know that the two guys who gave UNC the most trouble that night – Yogi Ferrell and Troy Williams – are no longer with the team. You may even have a vague recollection of there being some discontent among Indiana fans about head coach Tom Crean.

Over the holiday, you probably noticed that Indiana, ranked as high as third by some, went out and laid an egg, losing to Indiana-Fort Wayne (they of the KenPom #121 rating) who, let’s go ahead and admit it, you didn’t even know was a real school.

In general, your sense is that Indiana isn’t really Indiana.

Stop it, I said.

Stop it, because slaying teams with that mentality is what Indiana does. It has become their identity. Fort Wayne, you say? Rewind to early in the 2015 season. They opened their year with three early losses, including to the likes of UNLV and Wake Forest, to say nothing of a pasting by Duke in last year’s ACC-Big Ten challenge. That kind of thing did nothing but feed all of the stories about what was then viewed as Crean’s shaky job security. And oh, yes, they then lost their stud scorer, SG James Blackmon, Jr., to a season-ending knee injury.

Crean and his Hoosiers responded to those missteps and those doubts by romping through the Big Ten like it was the Hoosier Invitational, winning the conference by two full games over Michigan State, Maryland, Iowa, Purdue, Wisconsin, and a few other winners of more than 20 games. Crean went from hot seat to Big Ten Coach of the Year.

And, oh yes, Blackmon? Crean will get his star scorer back for tomorrow night’s game after he tweaked his knee in the Fort Wayne game and missed Indiana’s romp over Mississippi Valley State.

Treat Indiana as if they are anything other than Indiana, and you’re likely to be sorry. If you don’t want to take my word for it, ask Kansas. They opened with Indiana and Duke and only beat one of them. It wasn’t the Hoosiers.

So how do the Tar Heels match up and continue their early season roll?

Start with post play. Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks may find that their return to the mainland comes with the stiffest challenge they’ve seen in the paint this year. Indiana is long – featuring 6’8” sophomore F Juwan Morgan (who is filling in for injured senior Collin Hartman), 6’8” sophomore PF Og Anunoby, and sophomore 6’10” C Thomas Bryant. That line rebounds ferociously, ranking one spot behind North Carolina in offensive rebounding (#3 and #2, respectively) and in the top 20 in defensive rebounding (the Tar Heels have not been nearly as effective on the defensive boards, the Wisconsin game notwithstanding).

Meeks, Hicks and Tony Bradley will have their work cut out for them, and must find a way to rebound and scrap for loose balls without getting into foul trouble. They’ll also have to contend with Anunoby, an elite defensive specialist who can guard any position on the floor. And just for fun, throw in Bryant, who is on a number of preseason 1st-team All-American lists and seriously considered going into the NBA draft after last season.

Bryant isn’t even the player everyone talks about when you talk Indiana: that’s usually Blackmon, a prolific scorer who put up 26 on Kansas. Blackmon has a reputation for being spotty on defense, but he’s the guy the Tar Heels will have to account for on every possession on the other end of the floor. But it’s not just Blackmon. The Hoosiers are impressive on every offensive measure but one (we’ll get to that in a moment). They’re good from 2 (56.4%), from 3 (39.8%) and in overall effective field goal percentage (a newish metric that accounts for not just makes and misses, but the value of each make), where they rank 13th (they were 1st last year). As mentioned earlier, when they miss, they’re as potent as the Tar Heels at creating second opportunities.

Which leads us to the one thing that stands out as a weakness, and which you can bet Roy Williams has circled on his scouting report: they haven’t figured out their point guard situation. Two players serve in the point guard role: senior Robert Johnson and junior Pittsburgh transfer Josh Newkirk, both of whom are trying to replace star guard Yogi Ferrell.

Crean is still experimenting—sometimes Johnson gets more time, sometimes Newkirk, and sometimes they share the floor in a 3-guard lineup. But when you’re unsettled at the point it usually shows up in the turnover column, and sure enough, that’s where you find an Indiana weakness: they rank 324th (not a typo) in turnover percentage. Expect the Tar Heels to ratchet up the traps and scrambles to make the Hoosier guards prove they can handle pressure. If they can’t, that’s UNC’s chance to blow the game open.

In other words, if there were ever a game tailor-made for Joel Berry to do Joel Berry things on a national stage, this is it. If Berry and Kenny Williams can keep the pressure off of the front court by disrupting the Indiana offense, it can be a good night for the Tar Heels. If Indiana settles its ball handling and lets its shooters and rebounders go to work, on the other hand, the Hoosiers have more than enough to pick up their second win over an elite team this season.