College basketball elitists are already giddy about this Sweet 16 pairing of No. 1 North Carolina and No. 5 Indiana, a matchup between two of the game’s greatest traditional programs.
Carolina comes into this game hitting its stride at the right time after winning the ACC regular season and tournament championships and beating No. 16 Florida Gulf Coast, and No. 9 Providence handily in the NCAA Tournament’s first two rounds. Tar Heels fans are hungry for another national title, and this team certainly has the talent to hang another banner in the Dean Dome. The Heels are led in scoring by national player of the year candidate and big man Brice Johnson — but Carolina doesn’t just dominate the paint, with top-end guard play coming from Joel Berry II and Marcus Paige on the perimeter.
The basketball pressure cooker that is Bloomington, Ind., almost got the best of Tom Crean last season as losses and player arrests and dismissals were piling up. Crean responded with his best coaching performance since he’s been in Bloomington, winning the outright Big Ten regular season title and defeating archrival Kentucky last Saturday in the second round. The Hoosiers go as senior point guard Yogi Ferrell go — and Yogi goes fast. Controlled, yet, fast — reminiscent of Branch McCracken’s “Hurryin’ Hoosiers” teams of yesteryear. With the Indianapolis native Ferrell running the show alongside high-octane forward Troy Williams, the Hoosiers are the most fun, and probably the most up-tempo offensive team left in the Tournament.
No. 5 Indiana Hoosiers (27-7) vs. No. 1 North Carolina Tar Heels (30-6)
When: 9:57 p.m. ET (Friday)
Where: Wells Fargo Center (Philadelphia)
Line: North Carolina -6
Keys for North Carolina
Roy Williams’ message to his team is simple — play your game. Carolina can run up and down the floor well enough, but doesn’t want to turn this contest into a track meet with the Hoosiers. The Heels have a noticeable advantage in the frontcourt, starting with the 6-foot-10 Brice Johnson. Johnson averages a double-double (16.8 ppg, 10.5 rpg) and also leads the team in blocks. In short — he’s a beast that Indiana’s mid-size big men can’t handle.
North Carolina also has depth in the paint behind Johnson with Kennedy Meeks, Isiah Hicks and Justin Jackson, all three of whom are listed as “significant contributors” in terms of percentage of possessions used according to KenPom. The 6-foot-8 Jackson has the ability to knock down jumpers from outside of the paint, likely drawing one of the Hoosiers’ best rim protectors, Troy Williams or OG Anunoby, away from the paint.
Defensively, Carolina has to find a way to frustrate Yogi Ferrell — easier said than done. But more than Ferrell, the Tar Heels have to slow down Troy Williams. Williams, who tends to get in his own way at times, can get to the bucket with more explosiveness than anyone Carolina has seen this season. Getting back in transition and getting a hand in the face of Indiana’s shooters is going to be paramount.
Keys for Indiana
First thing’s first — the Hoosiers have to shoot the ball better. Another 6-of-21 showing from three-point range, like they had against Kentucky, isn’t going to fly against the high-scoring Tar Heels. The Hoosiers have the ability to get hot behind the arc unlike any other team in the nation, with all five guys on the floor being able to stretch the floor and knock down jumpers.
It’s unlikely that freshman Thomas Bryant will be able to repeat his brilliant performance that he had against Kentucky (19 points, 7-for-9 FT) against the trees of Carolina. If the Hoosiers are to pull off back-to-back upsets, it’s going to have to come from the perimeter.
It starts with Ferrell. He is the soul and the engine of this squad — and so far this Tournament, he has been brilliant, scoring 20 points and pulling down 10 boards against Chattanooga, and adding 18 points against Kentucky. More importantly, Ferrell is protecting the basketball, with just three turnovers compared to 14 assists in the first two games.
But it’s not just Ferrell that will have to produce. Williams and Anunoby give the Hoosiers firecracker explosion from the wings in transition and with hustle plays. But the biggest input is going to have to come from behind the arc from role players Collin Hartman, Nick Zeisloft and Max Bielfeldt, especially with starting guard Robert Johnson’s availability in limbo for this game. Also Bryant is going to need help in the post, calling on every single Hoosier to crash the boards and gather rebounds.
The Hoosiers are one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the country and the Tar Heels are one of the worst at defending the arc. North Carolina is dominant in the frontcourt, and Indiana is limited.
Both have tradition. Both have pageantry. Both have entrenched, nationwide, basketball-crazed fan bases.
So something has to give.
When it comes to breaking down a matchup, I typically stick to what common sense and the numbers tell me. Basic logic and the analytics say that North Carolina has all the tools and advantages to handle Indiana, especially with the discrepancy in the paint. But March has a way of kicking the numbers and logic to the side and giving us something that we’ve never seen before, something special — just look at Middle Tennessee.
The Tar Heels are peaking at just the right time, hitting on all cylinders, on both ends of the floor. They look like a national title contender and they’re playing like one... but there is just something about these Hoosiers.