#1 North Carolina vs. #5 Indiana. In the same way that teams like Gonzaga shouldn’t have been seeded so low, Indiana shouldn’t be seeded even higher. The Big Ten regular season Champs have been every bit as good as the teams seeded about them in all regions. After losing leading scorer James Blackmon at the beginning of the season it seemed as though title hopes of any kind were fading, and then the team came together.
Built on supreme speed and rhythm, Indiana always had the juice on offense to outscore opponents. Now they have the defense to keep up when they aren’t as efficient on the offensive end. A combination of stretch 4s (Colin Hartman, OG Anunoby) provide a different look while Thomas Bryant and Michigan transfer Max Bielfeldt offer defense and post positioning to stabilize the back end.
Yogi Ferrell has been the main cog in the machine for all 4 years (even though he “shared” PG duties with Jordan Hulls his first year). This year has been no different, except his shooting from 3 has been much better and his decision making has improved in tight moments. Having guys that can hit open shots makes a huge difference. Robert Johnson and Nick Zeisloft are two other sharpshooters that can break the game open. But the most important key at the stretch 4/wing position is the X-factor. As he goes, so goes this Hoosier team.
Carolina is a different beast. They’ve got so many guys with the ability to star and yet many of them choose to play complementary roles. Justin Jackson is a solid rebounder, defender, and scorer when needed, but his perimeter defense will be most important with his length (6’8). Theo Pinson is a less-developed version of Jackson with just as much upside who adds awesome depth. Joel James (6’10) has rounded into a productive player in his final season and will battle down low. And Nate Britt has the tools to be an effective floor leader but he plays more like a combo (an inconsistent one).
Point guard play is just as important for the Tar Heels. Marcus Paige will be asked to score from deep and then penetrate and dump to bigs Kennedy Meeks (6’9) and Brice Johnson (6’9). These two guys are much-improved and a load on the inside. If they can handle playing out on the perimeter they should more than hold their own down low. Isaiah Hicks is just another big that will get run and play all over. There’s just so much talent on this roster it’s tough to bet against.
Marcus Paige has been as good as advertised this season. He’s been a scorer, a distributor, and a leader. Now he just needs to be a winner. If he outscores Yogi then this looks like a Carolina win. The rest of the Tar Heels will get theirs, but these two teams feed off their point guards. Which one will play better? North Carolina 85, Indiana 78.