Indiana center Thomas Bryant posted up North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks on Wednesday night at Assembly Hall, and Meeks pushed him away from the block. By the time Bryant caught the ball, he was in the right corner beyond the three-point line.
This is the last place most big men want to catch the ball. But not Bryant.
The IU sophomore drove around Meeks into the middle of the lane, throwing in a right-handed shot off his right foot going to his left. Next time down, he caught the ball in a similar spot in the right corner and banged in a three-pointer.
That is a two-possession sample of why the 13th-ranked Hoosiers are one of hardest teams to guard in college basketball—and possibly the hardest.
Indiana won its second against a Goliath this season, besting the No. 3 Tar Heels 76-67 and making everyone wonder how in the heck a team that also beat No. 4 Kansas lost to something called the Mastodons eight days prior.
That Fort Wayne loss is not to be wiped off the resume and could be a sign of the Hoosiers’ vulnerability when they don’t play with energy.
But what we’ve learned from the wins over UNC and KU is that the Hoosiers can be extremely dangerous when they play with passion, because Crean has built an offense that is a scouting report nightmare.
Centers are not supposed to initiate actions from the perimeter, shoot threes or make plays off the dribble like a guard.
This is why Crean is one of the best in the business when it comes to player development. Bryant did not arrive at Indiana with all these skills. As a high schooler, he was heavy-footed and spent most of his time on the blocks.
But Crean has a philosophy of positionless basketball, and he wants each of his players to be able to shoot, pass and dribble.
Bryant and OG Anunoby are not only one of the best front lines in college basketball; they're a walking billboard for Crean's program that should attract all big men with a desire to play on the perimeter.
Anunoby was a 3-star recruit way off the national radar when he signed with IU, per Scout.com. Now he’s projected to go in the lottery of the 2017 draft, and he's one of the best two-way stretch 4s in the college game.
Bryant and Anunoby combined for 28 points against the Heels and were the difference between what happened Wednesday and what took place back in March when UNC beat Indiana in the Sweet 16.
The IU offense was dominant last season as well and may not even be as consistent this year without the steadiness of graduated point guard Yogi Ferrell, but this team is more of a matchup nightmare because of the growth of Bryant and Anunoby. It is also more complete because of its defensive potential.
Let’s go back to that Sweet 16 game as proof. That night, former UNC power forward Brice Johnson scored 20 points, Meeks added 15 and the Heels also grabbed 15 of their 32 misses. The Hoosiers had no answer other than to foul—and they did so 27 times, giving UNC 33 free throws.
“The threes hurt us, no question about that, but the post-ups, they destroyed us," Crean said after last year’s Sweet 16 loss. "We couldn't overcome that."
On Wednesday night, UNC’s starting front line (Meeks and Isaiah Hicks) combined for 17 points. The Heels grabbed 13 of 42 offensive rebounds—they came in ranked second in offensive rebounding rate, grabbing 46.6 percent of their misses, per KenPom.com—and they shot 22 free throws.
Bryant isn’t the best defender and got buried by Meeks a few times in the post, but he is improved. And Anunoby is a big upgrade over Troy Williams, who started as a small-ball 4 for the Hoosiers last year and just didn’t have the strength to match up with true low-post scorers.
Now the Hoosiers have the bodies—6’10” freshman De’Ron Davis and 6’8” sophomore Juwan Morgan included—to not get pushed around on the defensive end.
Then offensively, Bryant and Anunoby put their men in unfamiliar territory.
“We wanted to space Carolina,” Crean told ESPN’s John Anderson on SportsCenter following the game. “The biggest thing for us was to get the Carolina forwards to have to play two ways, constantly, and not let them just settle into the post all night, because they’re so good at that.”
You can try to downsize, as Kansas did with Josh Jackson at power forward, but Bryant is Crean’s ace in the deck. You might be able to match up with four guys, but Bryant can send a defense into recovery mode. Meeks and KU’s Landen Lucas were uncomfortable trying to guard him out on the perimeter, and when you send help, the Hoosiers have the shooters to make you pay.
The NCAA tournament is so much about matchups, and that’s why it’s hard to predict March success. Crean’s team last year was good enough to get to a Final Four; it simply ran into a poor matchup in the Heels. But this group is more mismatch-proof because of the evolution of Bryant and Anunoby.
The Fort Wayne loss shows the Hoosiers are not upset-proof. They miss Ferrell’s leadership and playmaking abilities in late-game situations.
But, still, no one is going to want to draw Indiana come March, especially the big names the Hoosiers won't look past like KU and UNC. Figuring out how to match up with IU's frontcourt duo is a puzzle that is almost impossible to solve. Add in the ridiculous shot-making ability of James Blackmon Jr., and the Hoosiers have the goods to go on a deep run.
C.J. Moore covers college basketball and football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.