The perennial basketball powerhouses have combined for 26 Final Fours - but both are experiencing what is, for them, a longer than usual drought. North Carolina last reached a Final Four in 2009, when a team led by Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Danny Green crushed Michigan State to win the program’s fifth national title. Indiana hasn’t been there since 2002, when coach Mike Davis led the squad to a championship game loss to Maryland.
Whichever team prevails tonight will still need to get past Notre Dame or Wisconsin in the East regional final Sunday. Still, there are plenty of reasons why we'll see either the Hoosiers or Tar Heels next week in Houston. Here's the five most compelling:
Experience - This is the season of the upperclassmen in college basketball, and both teams should be prepared to play in a game of this magnitude. UNC starts two seniors and a junior. Indiana starts two seniors and two juniors. Those veterans led each team to two impressive victories on the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament. North Carolina handled a talented Providence squad, while Indiana drew the most difficult second-round assignment, in Kentucky, and closed strong to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2013.Point and Center - Believe this old coaching adage: Teams that are strong at point guard and center are well equipped for a deep postseason run. North Carolina has a terrific passing team that shares playmaking duties - five rotation players average two assists per game - but point guard Joel Berry’s emergence as primary ballhandler and 3-point threat added yet another dimension to an already difficult to defend offense. Brice Johnson, who averages 16 points and 10 rebounds, is lethal in the paint. Indiana counters with senior point guard Yogi Ferrell, who has 1,961 career points and freshman Thomas Bryant, a 6-10 center who converts 71 percent of his shots and averages 11.9 ppg.
Strong Offense - Scoring points in an efficient manner is always a valuable weapon, and it’s magnified as the bracket unfolds. Just look at the points per possession produced by the four regional semifinal winners Thursday night: Villanova (1.56), Oregon (1.17), Kansas (1.14), Oklahoma (1.07). UNC and Indiana create their buckets from different areas on the floor, but both teams run crisp sets at a high pace. The Tar Heels score 62 percent of their points on 2-pointers (3rd in the nation). The Hoosiers score 36 percent of their points on 3-pointers (37th in the nation).
Improved defense - Entering the season, defensive intensity - or the lack thereof - was the question surrounding each team’s national championship chances. North Carolina languished with an adjusted defensive efficiency ranking in the 50s and 60s, well outside the profile of a title contender. After a crushing one-point home loss to Duke, the Tar Heels turned their attention to curbing the penetration of opposing guards. This emphasis enabled them to hold fellow Sweet 16 participants Virginia, Notre Dame and Duke below 40 percent on 2-point shots in three victories. Indiana was even worse defensively in starting 5-3. The low point was allowing 1.52 points per trip to Duke in a 20-point loss on Dec. 2nd. They’ve improved since, and smothered Kentucky, holding the nation’s most efficient offense to just 0.94 points per trip - .25 below its season average, equal to a point every four possessions.Hungry coaches - In 28 years at Kansas and North Carolina, Roy Williams has won 780 games at a 79 percent clip, reached seven Final Fours and claimed two national championships. Now 65 years old and dealing with two bad knees, one could understand if his passion for coaching was fading. That’s hardly the case. He’s as fiery as ever, eager to lead this team to its own shining moment in Houston. On the other side, embattled and Tom Crean go hand-in-hand. The Bloomington faithful haven’t always agreed with the program’s direction under Crean. But after going 37-29 the last two seasons (and missing the 2014 NCAA tournament) the coach responded by leading these Hoosiers to the Big Ten regular season championship and within two games of the program’s second Final Four since 1992.