Cody Zeller chose to stay home for college—opting to play at Indiana, not North Carolina, where his brother Tyler starred for four years. Tonight he must protect his home floor against the team that had long been thought to be the favorite in his recruitment.
No. 1 Indiana and No. 14 North Carolina square off at Assembly Hall on day one of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. All eyes will be on No. 40, who should have his way with an inexperienced North Carolina frontcourt that’s still sorting out its rotation.
This is a matchup that looks sexy on paper—two name-brand schools, the Zeller storyline, ACC/Big Ten Challenge implications—but could turn ugly between the lines. Here’s a few nuggets to chew on in anticipation of the blueblood showdown:
No P.J. Hairston. The sophomore swingman is out with a knee he injured in practice over the weekend. Hairston seemed to have turned a corner in North Carolina’s rout of lowly Mississippi State in the Maui Invitational quarterfinals. With Hairston out, the Tarr Heels will turn to Reggie Bullock, the junior guard counted upon to be a scoring ace on the wing this season.
Bullock. His bare, overall stats look awfully good, but that doesn’t paint a fair or accurate picture of the season he’s had to date. Against North Carolina’s only worthwhile opponent this year (Butler), Bullock spit the bit. He finished with 13 points on 5 of 13 shooting—thanks to a late scoring burst with the outcome all-but decided—in the loss. Bullock can stat-pad with the best, but can he be relied upon as a No. 1 option on the perimeter this season with the stakes raised? We’ll get a better idea tonight.
Searching for offense. If you remove UNC’s win over Division-II Chaminade in the Maui third place game, the Heels have shot better than 50-percent in terms of effective field goal percentage only once—against a terrible Mississippi State team. For you folks who are stats adverse, that isn’t good. Indiana has held opponents to less than 0.9 points per possession so far this season, so if North Carolina is to get out of its offensive rut tonight, it certainly will have earned it.
Battle of the boards. This isn’t a traditional North Carolina team that dominates the glass. These Heels can be had on the boards, as they were for most of their semifinal loss to Butler in Maui. Indiana ranks eighth in the nation in rebounding rate (total rebounding %), but the Hoosiers have yet to face a truly strong team on the boards. Their first test in that department will come tonight against a UNC squad which, while subpar on the boards relative to previous Carolina teams, will still put up a dogfight on the boards.
Defending the perimeter. North Carolina’s defense has been representative thus far, but the team’s perimeter defense will be put to the test tonight against an Indiana team that can stroke it from outside. The Hoosiers are shooting better than 41-percent from behind the arc this season and own five players who are legitimate threats from behind the arc. Jordan Hulls is the best outside shooter in America (and unlike Rotnei Clarke from Butler, for example, he doesn’t take ill-advised shots) and Christian Watford is a killer from deep as well, especially in high leverage situations. But the Heels better not lose sight of reserve guards Remy Abell or Maurice Creek. They’ll beat you too if left open in the corner. The Hoosiers have had their own issues guarding the 3-point line, as brought to light against Georgetown in the Legends Classic finale.
Prediction: Indiana 85, North Carolina 66
Reasons: Even without suspended freshmen Peter Jurkin and Hanner Mosquera-Perea, Indiana is deeper across the board than Carolina. The Hoosiers are more experienced, more consistent on the perimeter, sounder defensively and move the ball significantly better on offense. Mix in the best offensive big man in all of college hoops and IU has the right mixture of star power, depth, balance and experience to beat a young UNC team in a laugher. Expect this game to take on a frenetic pace from the tip-off.