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Beat Writer Breakdown: UNC vs Indiana

Inside Carolina beat writer Greg Barnes and Peegs beat writer Jeff Rabjohns have closely tracked the Tar Heels and Hoosiers, respectively, this season. They review the key aspects to Wednesday night's ACC-Big Ten Challenge showdown in Bloomington.

Greg Barnes: Indiana opened the season with a big win over Kansas, only to falter 11 days later at Fort Wayne. What should we make of the Hoosiers five games into 2016-17?

Jeff Rabjohns: I think Indiana remains a team with a very high ceiling but a ways to go to reach that ceiling. The win over Kansas was an outstanding performance, but I think the expectation that IU would stay at that level of play right from the jump was very premature.

The Hoosiers have a very good frontcourt led by center Thomas Bryant and forward OG Anunoby -- listed by DraftExpress as the top two NBA prospects in the Big Ten -- good shooters led by James Blackmon, Robert Johnson and Anunoby, and legit eight-man depth with three four-star level recruits coming off the bench.

On the other hand, a high turnover rate and inability to handle middle drives and straight-line drives on defense have been issues. When the 6-foot-8 Anunoby, who can defend at least four positions, isn't on the floor as he wasn't for much of the Fort Wayne loss, it has a major trickle-down defensive impact for IU.

In our offseason storylines series, we listed point guard play and defense as the top-two questions for IU entering the season, and I think after five games, those remain the top two. IU also doesn't have a bail-out guy like Yogi Ferrell offensively and needs movement - both ball and personnel - to create scoring opportunities.

What about North Carolina, Greg? After the way the Tar Heels rolled through the field at Maui, are they playing the best of any team in the country right now?

Greg Barnes: That's possible, although it may not be surprising given the veteran experience on this roster. Five of the six players that have earned starts this season have played in 16 postseason tournament games (nine NCAAT, seven ACCT) the past two seasons, and that doesn't include junior wing Theo Pinson, who is out for another month or so with a broken foot. This roster was better positioned for a fast start than a lot of other teams that are working new pieces into the rotation.

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That being said, I'm not sure that anyone expected Joel Berry to play as well as he has to start his junior season. Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson were such household names last year that many overlooked the fact that Berry won ACC Tournament MVP honors and scored 20 points in the national championship game, so his level of play to this point is not a fluke, but he's been elite outside of the Hawaii game. Add in Justin Jackson as a consistent secondary perimeter scorer and a legitimate post rotation with Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks and freshman McDonald's All-American Tony Bradley, and the Tar Heels' balance is as good as its been since the 2011-12 team.

Scoring has never been an issue for Roy Williams, though, so the question marks entering the season centered on replacing Johnson's rebounding presence and defense (as usual). UNC has had a number of lapses on the boards, but its size and athleticism have more than made up for those lapses against lesser opponents. However, against a Wisconsin squad that is one of the nation's top rebounding teams, the Tar Heels were dominant on the boards, largely due to Kennedy Meeks. When the senior center is locked in and hustling like he was in Maui, UNC will be tough to beat. You mentioned Indiana's struggles defending the dribble drive, which is a topic UNC fans have harped on with their own team in recent years. Berry's defense may be even better than his offense, and with Nate Britt and Kenny Williams providing solid defensive contributions at the off guard spot, the Tar Heels have been able to force opponents to start their offense further out on the perimeter and thereby limit open driving lanes for the most part thus far.

Speaking of guard play, it appears as though James Blackmon has stepped into Yogi Ferrell's role as the primary backcourt option, but will the junior guard be able to play against UNC on Wednesday? Does Indiana have enough depth on the perimeter to overcome his absence if he's unable to play?

Jeff Rabjohns: The status of James Blackmon Jr. remains in question going into Wednesday's game, but IU coach Tom Crean said Tuesday night it is likely Blackmon plays if he continues to progress as he has. Blackmon has been Indiana's top scorer at 20.5 points per game, is shooting 47 percent from 3-point range (15-for-32) and is also IU's second-leading rebounder at 7.0 per game. When healthy, Blackmon has been as good, if not better, than ever. He suffered a third major knee injury after 13 games of his sophomore season, needing ACL surgery, but came back with more explosion and was shooting as well as ever from deep. Blackmon's knee was banged in IU's overtime 71-68 at Fort Wayne on Nov. 22 and he didn't play in IU's 85-52 win over Mississippi Valley State on Sunday.

Yogi Ferrell, now playing for the Brooklyn Nets, was a McDonald's All-American who was a four-year starter at point guard, and that's not a loss that a team immediately replaces, especially from an experience standpoint. Josh Newkirk, a transfer from Pittsburgh, has been IU's starter at point guard to open the season. IU has utilized Newkirk, junior Robert Johnson and even on occasion 6-foot-8 forward Juwan Morgan to initiate offense. The Hoosiers also have been a little bit of a "get it and go" mentality as far as whoever gets a rebound or has a chance to probe the defense early, go ahead and do so, and if there is something, take it, if not, run offense.

IU does have depth in the backcourt with Blackmon, Johnson and freshmen Devonte Green, Danny Green's younger brother, and Curtis Jones, who hit a big 3 in overtime in IU's 103-99 overtime win over then No. 3 Kansas to open the season. 

The biggest aspect to the Blackmon question is how IU threatens a defense from 3-point range. Nine IU players have made 3s so far this season, and the arc is a major portion of Indiana's offense. Since 2011-12, Indiana leads all major-conference teams in 3-point percentage (40.2 percent.)

As far as North Carolina, you mentioned Berry, who I think has been tremendous, and others. I've been impressed with center Kennedy Meeks's emergence and 6-foot-10 Tony Bradley in a backup role.

What have you seen from UNC's frontcourt?

Greg Barnes: Better than expected to this point, although I'll admit entering the season I thought this would be the biggest question mark for UNC. Bradley's emergence alone has answered those concerns to a large degree. He's a freshman, though, and inconsistencies are part of the game for first-year players. Where UNC needs consistent production is out of Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks - two post players who have been hot and cold throughout their careers - and to their credit they have delivered to this point. Meeks was the most dominant big on the floor against Wisconsin, and that's not something we've been able to say a lot against high-level competition.

UNC's size and athleticism has been too much for most of its opponents thus far too handle, and Wisconsin was really the first true test against all-conference type big men. They passed the first test, so now the question is whether they can do it in back-to-back games. If Meeks plays like he did against the Badgers, the Tar Heels will be tough to beat this season. UNC is hopeful sophomore forward Luke Maye will be able to play after missing the Hawaii trip with a sprained ankle. Roy Williams only has four true post players on the roster, so foul trouble and injuries are things the Tar Heels are not well-equipped to handle.

How does Collin Hartman being out indefinitely affect Indiana's post rotation?

Jeff Rabjohns: It's really interesting about Indiana's frontcourt right now because that's a unit that's kind of feeling its way a little bit and trying to figure out how it wants to try to be and should be most effective.

Hartman, a senior who has pretty much every quality you want in a leader, may not have scored a lot, but he would have been that strong voice on the court. He still is in the huddle, but IU has missed that some on the court. His best basketball abilities were making 3s, being a passer and help-side defense, all of which do have impacts, the latter two not really stat-sheet impacts.

As for IU's frontcourt, IU is trying to do a better job of establishing the 6-foot-10 Bryant inside. When putbacks off offensive rebounds are subtracted, only 37.5 percent (15 of 40) of Bryant's field goal attempts so far this season are at or near the rim. Bryant is shooting 71 percent on those, only 33 percent on other shots inside the arc, so that speaks to how effective he can be and also how IU needs to do a better job getting him the ball when he's posted up. Bryant is 4-for-10 on 3s, so 25 percent of a 6-foot-10 center's shots so far are 3-pointers, and I get the sense Crean would like distance to be more of an offspeed pitch, not a full quarter of Bryant's offensive attempts.

Bryant's backup, 6-foot-10 De'Ron Davis, hasn't faced the double teams Bryant has, but Davis has taken only 15 shots and nine of them, not counting putbacks, have come at the rim, so 60 percent attempts at the rim compared to Bryant's 37.5 percent.

OG Anunoby, an energizer bunny off the bench last year, has been starting and is averaging 11.8 points and 6.2 rebounds and shooting 39 percent (7-for-18) from the arc. At 6-foot-8 and somewhere around 245 pounds, Anunoby has the potential to do more inside as well, even though he is a mismatch at the arc. Expectations for Anunoby have been somewhat unrealistic due to the NBA projections, which are based more on what he can be in years 2-10 or 3-10 in the pros than what he is producing right now in college. Anunoby's best strength right now is his incredible defensive versatility, strength and the ground he can cover.

The 6-foot-8 Juwan Morgan, who battled through shoulder issues much of his freshman year and had offseason surgery, is rebounding well at 6.8 per game and adds six points per game, usually in a role off the bench.

So, as you look at Wednesday's game, what are the things you think could decide the game, either way?

Greg Barnes: Post play and rebounding, which obviously work together. UNC won by 15 in the Sweet 16 last March because Meeks and Brice Johnson combined for 35 points and 19 rebounds. Isaiah Hicks averaged four fouls per game over UNC's final seven games last season, and while he's managed his fouls better through seven games this year, he still leads the team with 18. Anunoby's versatility in extending the floor will test Hicks's ability to defend without fouling. If Hicks gets into foul trouble, Justin Jackson, who is 6-foot-8 and 210 pounds, can slide down to the four and steal minutes. Roy Williams has grown to like his small lineup, although it works best with Theo Pinson alongside of Jackson, and Pinson won't be available.

The primary concern with the small lineup is rebounding. UNC has struggled at times this season in keeping opponents off the glass, although Wisconsin grabbed offensive rebounds on just two possessions in Maui. These are two of the best rebounding teams in the country - quite possibly the best offensive rebounding teams to date - and both squads utilize their defensive rebounds as the starting point for the transition game. I think there's a good chance the team that wins the second-chance points category wins the game.

Jeff, as we wrap this conversation up, are there any key factors that you will be paying close attention tonight?

Jeff Rabjohns: The five key things I see are the following:

Turnover percentage: IU is turning the ball over on 23.4 percent of its possessions, which ranks 328 in Division I, and with the way North Carolina can score on the break, that becomes accentuated because it's not only a lost possession for IU, it is points for Carolina more than half the time.

The offensive glass: North Carolina is No. 2, Indiana No. 3 in offensive rebounding rate nationally per KenPom, although last year's statistics are still factored into those numbers at this point of a young season and Carolina has faced more good teams to start this season. Can either team get an edge or will that be a stalemate?

Three-point shooting and small ball: If Blackmon is healthy and effective, Indiana has a chance to have four or sometimes five players on the floor who are a threat to make 3s. Can IU get going from 3 to offset some of Carolina's transition points? And, as you mentioned, without Pinson, I think IU could, if it is hitting 3s, have slight edge when both teams go smaller.

Transition defense: Carolina is so good at getting shots in transition, which at times aids with the Tar Heels' offensive boards. Can IU make Carolina run offense and defend middle drives?

Getting the ball in the paint: Carolina has been terrific getting the ball in the paint while Indiana is working to be better at that. If IU doesn't work through the paint on a pretty consistent basis, even inside out to hunt 3s, I think Carolina has an advantage.

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