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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, November 30, 2016 12:14 pm

Pregame: Indiana (4-1) vs. North Carolina (7-0)

Chris Goff | The Journal Gazette

BLOOMINGTON — Let's tackle 10 burning questions as No. 3 North Carolina meets No. 13 Indiana in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge today (9:15 p.m., ESPN).

1) Centers Thomas Bryant and Kennedy Meeks have been bigger factors in the post this season. How will that matchup unfold?

After a terrific season opener, then a few subpar outings, Bryant has been re-establishing himself on the block these past two games. That is one of the strongest weapons in Indiana's offensive arsenal. You can bet that he and Meeks will go at each other in the post. It will be a battle. The key for Bryant is that he has to know when to pass out to shooters as opposed to just putting the blinders on and attacking the rim. Meeks is probably one of the few players that can contain him down low, but blocking out will be Bryant's toughest task. Meeks, as a senior, has apparently become a great rebounder (about 11 boards a game so far).

2) Will the Hoosiers have their hands full against North Carolina?

Sure. Every team would. Great teams, the likes of North Carolina, Kansas, Duke and Kentucky, are tough to beat. But especially so given that Tar Heels coach Roy Williams now has something of a blueprint for beating this edition of the Hoosiers. IPFW laid it out last week: move the ball and exploit Indiana's heavy defensive rotations. The Hoosiers are at their best when they're creating turnovers and wreaking havoc defensively. But in Fort Wayne, they found it hard to sustain the requisite energy and revealed some other issues defensively in terms of IQ and personnel.

3) Could rebounding be an issue?

Yes. We mentioned Meeks. His backup, Tony Bradley, leads the nation in offensive rebound rate. Meeks is second. As a team, North Carolina's offensive rebound rate is 46.6 percent. A normal total is something like 31 percent.

"They are as good a rebounding team as we will have faced," Hoosiers coach Tom Crean said. "I put their ability to rebound the ball with the best we've seen in my nine years at Indiana."

4) What's the early identity of Indiana's offense?

As usual, the Hoosiers are letting it rip. Six different players -- James Blackmon Jr., Robert Johnson, OG Anunoby, Curtis Jones, Josh Newkirk and Bryant -- are taking at least two 3-pointers per game, and the Hoosiers as a team are the nation's 69th-most 3-point-happy offense. Well over a third of their shots -- 41.4 percent -- are triples, and they are making 39.8 percent, the 39th-best percentage. Bryant has shot 4 for 10 from beyond the arc this season after going 5 for 15 across 35 games as a freshman last year.

While Indiana averages 10.2 made 3-pointers, a well below-average turnover rate is also a big part of the story. The swarm of miscues plaguing the Hoosiers detracts from their offense. They're giving the ball away on 23.4 percent of their possessions, the second-worst rate of any high-major team.

Also, it's worth noting their offense can go horribly cold when the 3s aren't falling. They went 7 of 24 from downtown in the 71-68 overtime loss at Fort Wayne.

5) Do the Tar Heels have any injuries?

Yes. Theo Pinson is out indefinitely with a foot injury. Although he failed to make a big impact in his first two college seasons, Pinson, a 6-foot-6 wing, will probably be the Tar Heels' starting shooting guard when healthy. His absence offsets Indiana's loss of Collin Hartman.

6) What about Blackmon's status?

Crean, when he met with reporters last night, was optimistic about the junior's left knee feeling good enough to play.

“We fully expect that if James continues to progress the way that he has that he’ll be available to us,’’ Crean said. "I’m not saying it’s 100 percent, but if he stays on the track he’s on right now I’m saying he’ll play."

7) What are the trends with the ACC/Big Ten Challenge?

The Atlantic Coast Conference dominated the event at the start, winning every year for a decade. But that streak climaxed in 2008, and the ACC hasn't won since. The Big Ten won in 2009, 2010 and 2011. The leagues tied in '12 and '13. And then the Big Ten has won the past two years.

8) How is North Carolina's interior defense?

Despite having so much size and length, the Tar Heels are the ACC's worst shot-blocking team, sending back only 5.4 percent of opponents' attempts. But they are 24th in the country in the category that matters most: 2-point field goal defense. North Carolina's opponents are shooting only 41 percent inside the arc.

9) Did the Hoosiers study their 101-86 loss to North Carolina from the Sweet 16 in March? Or ignore it, because this is a new season?

The former. "We watched a lot from our game last March to show some things we did do well and some things we didn't do anywhere close to what we needed," Crean said.

10) Who wins?

I have no idea. I would expect another game like Indiana's opener against Kansas, a high-scoring affair decided in the final minutes. Maybe even another OT thriller. But if pressed on an outcome, I can't shun this home crowd. I just can't. Assembly Hall's atmosphere, I think, should nudge Indiana to victory. Since the start of the 2011-12 season, four teams ranked in the top three have lost in Bloomington.

"We need our crowd to be at that extreme level," Crean said, "in a game like this."