History aplenty as Hoosiers host No. 3 North Carolina
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – No. 13 Indiana will try to summon karma from its banner-hoisting past when hosting No. 3 North Carolina Wednesday night in a nationally televised ACC/Big Ten Challenge clash.
The Hoosiers' 1981 National Championship team, which defeated the Tar Heels in the title game, will be honored in a halftime ceremony. That Bob Knight squad had Isiah Thomas, Randy Wittman, Ray Tolbert and Landon Turner, among others.
Problem is, those guys can't suit up against the latest Tar Heels (7-0), who are fresh off three wins by an average of 30.3 points at the Maui Invitational including a 71-56 finale over Wisconsin on Nov. 23. North Carolina's path to finishing last season as an NCAA Tournament runner-up included a 101-86 victory over Indiana in the Sweet Sixteen at Philadelphia.
“I'm not going to go out and make my reservations for the Final Four,” Tar Heels head coach Roy Williams said after the Wisconsin win. “I've never seen a national championship won the day before Thanksgiving. It's usually won that first Monday night in April.”
He would know. He celebrated national titles in 2005 and 2009.
Indiana (4-1), ranked third before losing in overtime at Fort Wayne and dropping 10 spots, could be without its leading scorer in junior guard James Blackmon Jr., who is questionable with a left knee injury. The 20.5-point scorer, who also leads the team in 3-pointers with 15 out of 32 attempted (.469), missed Sunday's 85-52 home rout of Mississippi Valley State.
Blackmon has a lengthy history of significant knee injuries. He tore his left ACL in high school, meniscus in the same knee early in his college career and last year the right ACL prior to the Big Ten opener and missed the rest of the season.
“This afternoon, I go run, and I come through the weight room at the end before I go home to change, and there he is in the weight room doing his leg exercises,'' Indiana head coach Tom Crean said after Sunday's win. “He's very, very diligent on getting himself ready. He's been through a lot. Been through a lot before he even got here.
“So we've just got to make sure that we're patient with him and help him get through that part of it, and he'll know his body. He's certainly got great support here, and he'll get that. And we'll just see how the next few days go.''
While the Hoosiers average 88.6 points scored and have allowed 69.6 per game, the Tar Heels sport a 92.9-point average while allowing 65.6. Both teams shoot 3-pointers well – Indiana has made 51 of 128 (.398) while North Carolina has hit 47 of 120 (.392).
Five Tar Heels average in double digits, led by junior guard Joel Berry II at 17.1 points per game. Berry has a team-high 16 3-pointers and was just named ACC Player of the Week for a second time in this young season.
Tar Heels junior forward/guard Justin Jackson averages 15.4 points with 11 3-pointers. Senior forward Isaiah Hicks checks in at 14.6 points and senior forward Kennedy Meeks averages 13.7 points and 10.7 rebounds per game.
“We're not perfect,” Hicks said. “We have to polish some things, especially on the offensive side. We need to move more and get a little better spacing. Sometimes we get caught standing there. And we always have to keep up our defensive intensity and effort.”
Indiana sophomore forward OG Anunoby bounced back from a flu-shortened scoreless game with a career-high 21 points Sunday to boost his scoring average to 11.8 points. The preseason All-American also grabs 6.2 rebounds per game.
Hoosiers junior guard Robert Johnson averages 13.8 points and sophomore center Thomas Bryant averages 13.6 points and 8.2 rebounds.
Crean, the 2016 Big Ten Coach of the Year, is matching wits against one of the all-time greats in Williams, a 29th-year Hall of Famer whose 790-209 record ranks eighth on the career win list. Crean has spent half of his 18 seasons at Indiana and has a 342-216 overall record.
Indiana has an 8-6 series advantage including 2-1 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Since 2011-12, Indiana has five wins against top-three opponents, which ties for second behind Duke's six.