UNC Tar Heels against #1 Indiana Hoosiers this Tuesday is more meaningful game than you may think


While the Tar Heels have had relatively good success against Midwest college basketball teams, their history did not start off with a bang. And of all those Midwest teams, the Tar Heels still trail Indiana 5-7. They will get a chance to improve their record on Tuesday at 9:30 PM EST.

Nov 16, 2012; Long Beach, CA, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels head coach Roy Williams calls a play during the game against the Long Beach State 49ers during the second half at Walter Pyramid. North Carolina defeated Long Beach State 78-63. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-US PRESSWIRE

In the first nineteen years of Tar Heels basketball, UNC did not even play a Midwest team. Boye coached UNC between 1919-20 and the 1922-23. In his last season, his only loss was to Mississippi in the Southern Conference championship. Norman Shepard took over in the 1923-24 season, the Tar Heels first undefeated season. Shepard posted the Tar Heels first 20-plus win season that year and won the national championship recognized by Helms Athletic Foundation.

When they finally met Midwest teams at the beginning of the 1928-29 season, the Tar Heels lost to Butler, Ohio State and Louisville.

Frank McGuire became UNC’s coach in 1953, the year before the Tar Heels became part of the new Atlantic Coast Conference. In the 1956-57 season, McGuire took his team to the NCAA Final Four. In the Finals, two Midwest teams challenged the Tar Heels second undefeated season. Both were favored over the Tar Heels. Playing in Kansas City, Missouri, Kansas’ backyard, these games against Michigan State and Kansas were ranked in 2011 by USA Today as the eleventh and sixth all-time tournament games respectively.

It is hard to imagine these two three overtime games as less impressive than any in college basketball history, with the Tar Heels’ win over Wilt Chamberlain’s Kansas team in the Finals epitomizing the thrill of the ultimate underdog winning. This game remains as a pre-game highlight before almost every NCAA Finals, as vibrant today as it was in 1957.

In 1957-58, the Tar Heels beat Cincinnati, Notre Dame and Loyola (Illinois), three great teams including winners of three NCAA tournament championships in the early 1960s.

Yet, no Tar Heels team ever played Indiana University until 1961. Dean Smith lost to Indiana that year and in 1962, then won in 1963 during a 12-12 season, and lost again in 1964. With the Tar Heels record 1-3 against Indiana, Bob Knight and Dean Smith faced each other in 1979 and 1980. Smith won both evening the school’s record against Indiana to 3-3. This changed in the 1981 NCAA final game, with Knight also victorious 63-50 in the NCAA regionals in 1984. Smith then beat Knight in New York in 1988, making the Tar Heels record against the Indiana Hoosiers 4-5.

Both Bill Guthridge and Matt Doherty lost to Indiana, making the overall record 4-7. Roy Williams has won the only game he has played against Indiana since he became the Tar Heels coach, making the series 5-7.

So it is that the thirteenth all-time meeting between these two great basketball schools will occur next Tuesday in Bloomington, Indiana. There is little doubt but that this will be a very big game.

Indiana has won five NCAA championships, tied with the Tar Heels and trailing only Kentucky with eight and UCLA with eleven. The game will provide us with another look at what the Tar Heels can do in one of the toughest environments for an away college basketball team anywhere.

By game time, Indiana is almost certain to be still ranked number 1. The Tar Heels may lose some spots in the polls because of their loss to Butler in Hawaii, but will benefit from overwhelming wins against several teams and a spate of other losses. Look for the Tar Heels to be ranked no lower than twelfth.

There are many ironies and facts worth noting before this year’s game.

Tyler Zeller, the ACC player of the year from last year’s Tar Heels team, is now gone to the NBA to join his brother Luke now playing with the Phoenix Suns. His other brother Cody is a sophomore at Indiana favored to become this year’s NCAA player of the year.

The relative value given to the quality of coaching by Tom Crean and Roy Williams is meaningful and horribly lopsided.

Crean has put together one winning season since becoming Indiana’s coach in 2008. His first season was the worst in Indiana history. The next two were not much better, marking one of the worst three year records in major NCAA basketball history. True, Indiana’s larder was terribly depleted when he took over the program, and by the fourth year Crean had become ESPN’s 2012 National Coach of the Year and Sporting News’ Big Ten Coach of the Year. But by all rights, some might conclude he should not be discussed in the same breath as Williams, one of the NCAA’s most successful basketball coaches.

A Hall of Fame coach ranked on the highest rungs in many coaching statistics, Williams has recently been wrongfully tattooed by a poll as the most overrated coach in NCAA basketball today. Also, Crean has had recent success recruiting against Williams. And whatever he tells you, there is no doubt but that this game has some extra motivation for Williams for these reasons alone.

Another contrast. Williams is coaching his home state alma mater and state’s oldest, most famous university. Crean has moved from his home state Michigan to next door Indiana to coach, by way of Marquette. His time at Marquette included one Final Four, so he was no slouch there.

But for Crean this game has more meaning than for Williams. Most consider Crean’s experienced team far superior to Williams’ young squad as Williams once again reloads with a brand-new starting five. To prove that the choice of his team as number 1 remains valid, and to show that his more experienced squad can win against a storied program, Crean must win this game.

Williams, on the other hand, has nothing to lose. Win this game and he has yet another feather in his overloaded cap. Lose it, and this was expected.

So it is that at about 9:30 PM EST on Tuesday night we will find out about coaching and players. And see if the Tar Heels can pull within one game of evening the record between two storied programs.