Pregame thoughts on UNC-Indiana

North Carolina’s Brice Johnson (11) reacts after a dunk in the second half against Providence.
North Carolina’s Brice Johnson (11) reacts after a dunk in the second half against Providence. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Coming at you here from South Philadelphia, where North Carolina’s game against Indiana will tip off in … oh … about five and a half hours or so. And that’s assuming the Notre Dame-Wisconsin game before it ends on time.

Some pregame thoughts, keys, things to watch, observations, etc., while we wait …

1. First: a collection of our stories leading into this Sweet 16 game between the Tar Heels and Hoosiers:

▪ A story – the definitive story, perhaps, that I’ve written, at least – about Brice Johnson, the UNC senior forward. He went from thinking about quitting the team after his first workout to becoming an All-American. Looking back at where Johnson began, it’s difficult not to have more appreciation for how far he’s come.

▪ If you want to know what to watch tonight – and you probably do, I’m guessing – we’ve got you covered right here. More on this below.

▪ Kennedy Meeks knows he has been struggling. He knows he has his share of critics. He has tried to block them out and focus. On that, and some other notes.

▪ And from columnist Luke DeCock, a fun read about Theo Pinson. He likes to talk. He’s the best talker on the team, Roy Williams and his players say. But what happens when you ask people to talk about the talker? Well, for one thing, some pretty funny stories happen.

2. Speaking of talking, let’s talk about the most important keys tonight for UNC.

Here’s how I’d rank them:

▪ Forcing a lot of turnovers and taking advantage of them.

▪ Brice Johnson doing his thing in the post.

▪ Limiting Indiana’s good looks from the perimeter.

The rationale: Indiana was among the worst teams in the nation at avoiding turnovers. It’s the worst part of the Hoosiers offense, which otherwise is very efficient. The Hoosiers are likely to commit a decent amount of turnovers, and UNC needs to take advantage.

Regarding Johnson, it’s true: When he plays well and is consistently involved in the offense, UNC has essentially been unbeatable this season. Those times when he hasn’t been as good, or involved, the Tar Heels become vulnerable. Look at what happened, for instance, in the first game against Duke. Johnson was dominant in the first 28 minutes but nearly a non-existent part of the offense during the final 12 minutes, and UNC lost.

Then there’s the perimeter defense. As I wrote about earlier this week, the entire notion of 3-point field goal percentage defense might be a fallacy. While UNC has little control over whether Indiana makes its 3s, though, the Tar Heels do have some control over what kind of looks the Hoosiers get from the outside. UNC can’t afford to allow open looks from the perimeter. That’s true in every game but especially against the Hoosiers, who make nearly 42 percent of their 3s.

3. UNC is one victory away from going somewhere it hasn’t been in four years.

Which tells you something: Even at a place with the kind of history and tradition as North Carolina has, reaching this point of the NCAA tournament – and beyond – is hardly a guarantee. The Tar Heels played in the Midwest regional final in 2012.

They made the Elite Eight, too, in the previous four seasons before 2012. That kind of run tends to spoil people and provide a false impression about how the difficulty of reaching an Elite Eight. If UNC makes it there with a victory tonight, this will have to rank among the most satisfying tournament runs for coach Roy Williams.

4. Philadelphia is a perfect host city for an NCAA tournament regional.

Team NandO is staying down in the south part of the city but we managed to make it closer to downtown today. We walked around the Penn campus and also had an opportunity to check out The Palestra, which is like the Cameron Indoor Stadium of the north – only with even most history.

It’s difficult to beat the college basketball history in this town. The Triangle is unique with UNC, Duke and N.C. State all in close proximity. But in Philadelphia you’ve got five schools in one city all with an intertwined and rich basketball history: La Salle, Penn, St. Joseph’s, Temple and Villanova.

The Palestra is quite, quite awesome, by the way. There aren’t a ton of buildings where you walk in and the history and vibe just kind of smack you, but it’s one. You can feel it. Cameron is like that. Reynolds Coliseum is like that. I’ve never been to Allen Fieldhouse, but I’m sure it’s like that. The Palestra is like that, too. And, oh yes: Managed to make my first shot there, too: a 3 from the left baseline that rattled in.

Still got it.

5. Speaking of history, lots between UNC and Indiana here, too.

The Tar Heels and Hoosiers played here in 1981 on the day Ronald Reagan was shot. That national championship game came on one of the most memorable days in college basketball history.

Here was Roy Williams, an assistant on that UNC team, describing about that day:

“My recollection is not of much because I was about the 73rd coach on that staff. There were only three of us, but I was third, there’s no question. All the communication was going through Coach Smith and our athletic director, as it should have.

But what I remember is that it was just a normal day trying to get ready to play for a national championship, which is not a normal day, I understand that. But we were trying to get ready. And all of a sudden the tragedy happened with President Reagan.

And we’re coming to the game acting like it’s just a normal game. We had our pregame meal at the regular time. We came over, yet everybody knew in the back of our mind, hey, we may not play this; what’s the right thing to do? And it was sort of out of our hands, which I was glad. I wanted some people that had greater access to the proper information making those choices.

So I do remember us being outside in a hallway outside the locker room and all of a sudden, it’s 35 years ago however far it was, it was either C.M. Newton or Dave Gavitt came and got Coach Smith and he and Coach Knight and they went and talked. Coach came back and said president looks like he’s going to be okay and we’re going to play.

And after that moment, other than the moment of silence that I think we had before the game, there was not much about the president at that time. We were all so thankful that he was in good shape.”

6. Roy said something else interesting on Thursday, too.

It was a throwaway line in an answer about something else but Williams at one point said this:

“You know 10 years ago my guys thought Michael Jordan invented the game. Now they don’t even know who Michael Jordan is, if it weren’t for the Hanes commercials.”

It’s a great point that brings about an interesting question: Do players coming up nowadays have a real appreciation for Jordan, who many consider the greatest of all time? For decades the fact that Jordan went to UNC was perhaps UNC’s greatest recruiting tool. Now, as Williams said, “They don’t even know” who Jordan is. That lack of knowledge comes with a lot of implications, it seems.

7. Just saw a woman in red and white striped overalls get off the elevator here in the hotel.

Indiana warm-up-pants style. Must mean we’re making our way toward game time …

No. 1 UNC vs. No. 5 Indiana

When: 9:57 p.m.