Before darting to the locker room to celebrate a 73-67 win against Kentucky on Saturday, Indiana coach Tom Crean paused in front of a crowd of Hoosier faithful and waved both hands in praise of their support after his team earned its biggest win in his eight-year tenure.
It was, in a sense, a giant thank-you to Indiana’s extremely passionate fan base, which has spent the past several seasons finding any and every excuse to axe the Hoosiers head man.
But with zero Elite Eight appearances in almost a decade’s worth of work, maybe they had a point?
Now, though, Indiana fans have little room to complain. The Hoosiers, in what has been an outstanding NCAA Tournament, are still dancing.
Even more impressive, however, as Kentucky coach John Calipari eluded to after the game, Indiana was far from perfect in the win.
It shot just 6 of 21 from the outside (29 percent), but still handled the Wildcats with little trouble, especially down the stretch, silencing doubt across the country of the team’s inability to win away from Assembly Hall — for now anyway.
In reality, though, the Hoosiers (27-7) are still improving.
But few so-called experts have Indiana penciled into their Sweet 16s, and even fewer, from what I’ve read so far, are picking Crean’s team to advance past its next opponent — the East Regional’s top-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels.
But why not? After what it did on Saturday, not to mention the entire season, Indiana, among others, has to be a legitimate Final Four contender.
Topping North Carolina, however, will be its greatest challenge yet.
Why they will
The Hoosiers proved they can hang down low with some of the biggest players in college basketball against Kentucky, and the Tar Heel’s roster is quite similar.The Wildcats struggled to consistently score in the post against Indiana on Saturday, with a large amount of the credit going to Indiana freshmen Thomas Bryant and OG Anunoby, as well as senior Max Bielfeldt. But what Kentucky’s big struggled with even more against Indiana was its ability to spread the floor _ with those bigs.Six-foot-9 senior forward Brice Johnson has been a double-double machine for North Carolina this season and scored 21 points on 7 of 9 shooting from the field in the team’s previous win over Providence. Also efficient at the line (7-for-7 against the Friars), Johnson has the luxury of playing alongside junior forwards Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks, both who have spent plenty of time in the weight room over three seasons with the program. These guys will be larger, weight wise, than Kentucky, but can they handle the Hoosiers ability to go inside-out.
Hicks and Meeks average around five rebounds per game while Johnson, a projected top 15 pick in this year’s NBA draft, pulls down over 10 boards per contest.
However, Bielfeldt, Anunoby, Bryant and even forward Collin Hartman are capable of making shots from behind the arc, as well as driving to the basket, thus opening lanes for the likes of Yogi Ferrell, Troy Williams and fellow Hoosier slashers.
If Indiana can spread the floor and attack the basket with its guard, when needed, and maybe make more than six threes for the game, I see them coming away with a win. If the ball is not worked through the post, and the Hoosiers become stagnant, this game could get ugly quick.
And if Indiana was to score a victory, its road to Houston gets considerably less threatening after two tough wins. No. 7 seed Wisconsin upset No. 2 seed Xavier on Sunday, and No. 6 seed Notre Dame squeaked past Stephen F. Austin (No. 14 seed) earlier in the day to leave Indiana with a desirable route — and opponents — leading up to the season’s biggest event.
Why they won’t
North Carolina is the real deal and after an emotional win over its biggest nonconference rival, not to mention a long conference run, Indiana might be out of gas.As well as Ferrell has played during the tournament, the senior point guard who, on multiple occasions, has carried the Hoosiers this season, is due for a bad game sooner or later. And although Indiana has showed an ability to win, at times, without production from its top backcourt players (James Blackmon Jr. and Robert Johnson), a letdown from Ferrell would likely be costly against a team with 30 wins this season.Also of note: The injury bug could finally be taking its toll on the Hoosiers roster.
I expect both Johnson (ankle) and freshman forward Juwan Morgan (shoulder) to play today, but how effective each will be is the biggest concern. Johnson, who missed several games before returning against Kentucky, drilled two 3-pointers against the Wildcats in the first half to help Indiana grab a one-point lead at the break.
Crean called Johnson “iffy” earlier this week, however.
His timely shooting, mixed with his ability to defend the basketball, are assets the Hoosiers cannot afford to lose — or have a limited supply of — against the Tar Heels.
Morgan, who has provided steady minutes off the bench, would be less of a loss with the emergence Anunoby, but it is still a loss, nonetheless, when depth is as important as ever.
Fun fact: The last time Indiana and North Carolina played in the NCAA Tournament, in 1984, the Hoosiers ended Michael Jordan’s collegiate career in an East Regional semifinal contest.
Indiana and North Carolina will tip at approximately 9:57 p.m. or at the conclusion of the Wisconsin-Notre Dame game.