BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — It wasn’t always pretty.
Indiana men’s basketball had to battle hard against North Carolina — as you’d expect. Foul trouble piled up, some shots didn’t fall, some stretches of tough basketball. Some primary rotation players struggled to make an impact.
But if there’s one thing to glean from IU’s 77-65 win over the Tar Heels, it’s that it doesn’t have to be pretty for these Hoosiers.
This was the first major test of the season for 10th-ranked IU. The Hoosiers made a statement by winning a road game at Xavier nearly two weeks ago, but this is different. The Musketeers are a solid team with Big East title hopes, and a shot at a good NCAA Tournament run. The 18th-ranked Tar Heels were one win away from a national title last year, and has everyone back from that run. They entered the season one of the favorites to win a national championship.
“‘You’ve got to beat the best to be the best,’ is what Coach Woodson always says. He was not afraid of competition,” said senior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis. “That’s why we put teams like North Carolina, Kansas, Arizona on our schedule, because you’ve got to go toe-to-toe with those teams. We’re going to fight and battle.”
Indiana (7-0) leaned on its defense to win this game. That’s this team’s cornerstone. If all else fails, the Hoosiers can give themselves a chance in most games through their fierce defense.
It was on full display against the Tar Heels (5-3).
UNC preseason All-American Armando Bacot was clearly hurting, playing through ankle and shoulder pain. He recorded a double-double (12 points, 10 rebounds) but rarely looked comfortable inside. And that wasn’t only because of his injuries. Indiana’s forwards kept the pressure on Bacot. They came from behind to block shots that appeared open, bodied him in the paint, and seldom gave him space.
Caleb Love averaged a team-high 20 points per game entering this contest, and was shooting 42 percent from the field. He’s a microwave shooter — he can heat up very quickly, and when he does, he’s hard to stop. But Indiana locked him down from the opening tip with a variety of defenders. Trey Galloway and Jalen Hood-Schifino marked Love closely, and even Race Thompson guarded him a few times. He finished with 13 points, but shot 5 of 16 from the field and 2 for 7 on 3-pointers.
IU head coach Mike Woodson said his team just tried to stick to Love as tightly as possible and not give him room to get shots off comfortably.
“That kid’s got unbelievable range with his jump shot. We just tried to stay as close to him as possible,” Woodson said. “I think when you’re dealing with players that can make shots from the perimeter, you just can’t give them much room. I thought tonight, we were really good in that area.”
Offensively, it was Hood-Schifino carrying the load early with his best game to date. IU got crucial efforts from Galloway and Xavier Johnson with the entire frontcourt facing foul trouble.
Last year, Johnson would often get sped up in big-game atmospheres like these. He’d looked improved through IU’s first six games, and he came up huge in IU’s biggest game before this, at Xavier. But this was a different test, and he passed it once again. Johnson unlocked so much for IU’s offense, and racked up 20 points.
This type of composed, effective performance against a top team validates the way Johnson’s played in the season’s first month and actualizes the hopes that he could sustain this level into conference play.
While Thompson and Malik Reneau had trouble overcoming foul issues and inefficiency, Jackson-Davis excelled in the same situation. He never lost his aggressiveness; he never backed down. He routinely dominated Pete Nance inside, and he won the highly-anticipated matchup with Bacot.
In so many prior games against other top big men, Jackson-Davis struggled. He’d feast against lesser competition, but against players like Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn or Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson, he’d lose the matchup. He started to change that narrative in last season’s Big Ten Tournament run, and this game was the biggest example yet that he’s grown past that.
Though Bacot was less than 100 percent, Jackson-Davis clearly outplayed one of the top forwards in the country.
“He’s a big-time player,” Hood-Schifino said. “That’s what big-time players do.”
Indiana’s home-court advantage is one of the best in college basketball, and it may not be as big a statement for IU to win a big game like this in a raucous-as-ever Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.
And North Carolina’s recent slide doesn’t necessarily help the perception of this win. This is UNC’s third straight loss, after dropping games to now-No. 23 Iowa State and now-No. 11 Alabama in the Phil Knight Invitational over the weekend.
But make no mistake. This win says a lot about this IU team.
These same Hoosiers, one year ago, missed so many chances at statement wins like this. They picked up a few along the way, notably a skid-ending home win over Purdue. But enough opportunities came and went by March that they were likely on the wrong side of the bubble before an impressive Big Ten Tournament put them in the NCAA Tournament field.
IU has more tests ahead, in less favorable environments than Wednesday’s. But grinding out a comfortable win over North Carolina shows that Indiana’s style of basketball works against elite competition.
The Hoosiers can win games in many different ways. A number of different players can be the difference-maker on any given night. And it may not always be pretty basketball.
But for this team, it doesn’t have to be pretty. It just works.