Most of the members of this Indiana team have played in big games now. They’ve seen Assembly Hall spilling over. They’ve been in the company of fellow blue blood programs operating at their peak, and they’ve faced teams stacked with future pros and they’ve won.
But if you listen to IU coach Tom Crean, the Hoosiers have never played a team that not only plays this fast, but has this effective of a fast break.
“They bring in some things that not only have we not seen this year, but I’m not sure we’ve seen it at any point in time,” Crean said. “I don’t know if we’ve ever seen a fast break come into Assembly Hall in our time here like we’re going to see tomorrow night. Their transition is literally second-to-none. It always is with Roy Williams teams. We saw it first hand when we were at Marquette and he was at Kansas and we played in the Final Four. As hard as we prepared for it, it was unlike anything we had seen, and I think that’s the way that they are right now.”
The pace at which the Tar Heels play can be frenetic. A year ago with Kendall Marshall running the point, they ranked 10th in Division I in tempo — measured in possessions per game — according to KenPom.com with 72.2 per game. This year with speedy freshman point guard Marcus Paige, they’re playing even faster with 73.7 possessions per game.
But it’s not just the speed of the tempo, it’s the effectiveness of the break that makes the Tar Heels difficult to deal with, Crean said, it’s the fact that all five players have to be guarded in transition.
“I think the push is really, really important,” Crean said. “The fact that they can run two high-level shooters to the corners. A lot of people you have to prepare for will run for layups and dunks. You have to do that with North Carolina. … Teams that aren’t committed to running run to the wings. They run to the corners, and you have to guard them in the corners. It’s not like you can just go back and get in your normal help defensive routine and roll against them. You’ve gotta go get to the corners. Everybody on their break is a legitimate threat to score. They do a great job of getting underneath the basket if the first post doesn’t get it in the post. And (James Michael) McAdoo is unlike everything we’ve seen with his ability to rebound out of the break. They are a phenomenal, not only transition team, but transition rebounding team. McAdoo leads the way with that. It’s never over. It’s never over. If they don’t score quick, if they don’t get a layup or a three, you’ve gotta really be able to guard against the second shot because McAdoo is a trailer with a full head of steam.”
Beyond the speed, the Hoosiers also have to be concerned about North Carolina’s length and more so depth of length. The Tar Heels don’t have a 7-footer to match Indiana sophomore center Cody Zeller, but they do have four players 6-foot-9 or taller. That wouldn’t be nearly as intimidating if the Hoosiers had freshmen Hanner Mosquera-Perea and Peter Jurkin as well as senior Derek Elston. However, Mosquera-Perea and Jurkin remain suspended until the Butler game on Dec. 15 and Crean said Monday that Elston will probably be out until after Christmas with his meniscus tear.
Crean said he’s hopeful that Indiana’s experience against a much bigger Georgetown team in an 82-72 overtime victory in the Legends Classic shows ways that they can deal with North Carolina’s length, but said the difference is still significant.
“We’re giving up a lot of size,” Crean said. “We gave up a lot of size against Georgia. We’re gonna give up size for a while. We’ve got guys that have a lot of size and length that aren’t playing for us right now. We’re definitely gonna give up that size. As we keep reminding our selves and our team, they gotta guard us too. They gotta guard us on the other end too. What we give up in size on one end, we need to take advantage of on the other end. As long as we have good communication and tenacity and really good intelligence on our fundamentals, then that helps us, but we have to make adjustments.”
Other Notes from Monday’s availability:
— Zeller obviously has a number of ties to North Carolina. His older brother Tyler starred there, and he was quite close to picking the Tar Heels as his college destination. North Carolina was one of his final three along with Indiana and Butler, and it was widely believed that it was really between the Hoosiers and the Tar Heels.
Zeller faced several questions about North Carolina on Monday, and his answers were as gracious and dull by design as most would expect.
“Obviously, it was close,” Zeller said. “They were in my top three. I have a lot of respect for everything that they do. Their coaching staff was great. Tyler enjoyed his time there. At the end of the day, I just thought that IU was the best place for me. I have no regrets for that. I’m definitely enjoying it here.”
— Tuesday’s game is, by a long shot, the Hoosiers’ biggest non-conference game at home this season, and because it’s against one of the other member’s of college basketball’s pantheon of historical powerhouses, the Hoosiers were asked about how they expect the atmosphere to compare to the Kentucky game last year.
There are a number of mitigating factors in this one, obviously. Last year’s Kentucky game came a week after the Hoosiers’ previous contest, which made for buildup similar to that of a football game. This year, the Hoosiers had one day between Sunday’s matchup with Ball State. And of course, this time the Hoosiers are the nation’s No. 1 team as opposed to last year when Kentucky was No. 1 and the Hoosiers were unranked.
But still, it’s Indiana-North Carolina, and the Hoosiers expect Assembly Hall to be electric.
“It’s definitely gonna be crazy,” sophomore guard Remy Abell said. “It’s kind of like the Kentucky game last year. It might be a little better. Who knows? But it’s definitely gonna be crazy.”
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