By Adam Lucas
BLOOMINGTON—An hour before Wednesday night’s 9:20 p.m. tipoff, a member of the Indiana athletics staff looked outside the Hoosier basketball office. At that moment, hundreds of students were still lined up down the sidewalk, continuing a vigil that started over 12 hours before the scheduled start time.
He walked back away from the window. “Wow,” he said. “As long as I’ve been here, I’ve never seen anything like that.”
That’s the kind of night it was in Bloomington. After suffering a disappointing regional semifinals loss to Carolina last year, the Hoosiers pulled out every possible intangible for the pseudo-rematch with the Tar Heels.
It was the first full house at the newly renovated Assembly Hall. World champion Kyle Schwarber of the Chicago Cubs—an Indiana alum—was the game’s honorary captain. The crowd promptly serenaded him with the team’s victory song, “Go Cubs Go,” while he stood at midcourt.
Jim Cornelison, a well-known figure in the Midwest who regularly sings the national anthem prior to Chicago Blackhawks games, sang the anthem, with the perfect wave of his hand—featuring a gigantic Blackhawks Stanley Cup ring—towards the American flag as he belted, “…our flag was still there.”
And then, as the capstone to the intangible triumvirate, the basketball program honored the 1981 national championship team at halftime. This featured Isiah Thomas, who had spent most of the first half posing for selfies with the giant cutout of the ubiquitous Michael Jordan crying face (you will never see a giant cutout of a Thomas crying face because he and his Bad Boys teammates were too busy walking off the court before the end of the game rather than sticking around to watch Jordan's Bulls dispatch them while taking off on a run of six championships). Thomas used his time with the microphone at halftime to implore Bob Knight (who was absent, of course) to “Come home to Indiana,” then closing by leading the crowd in cheers.
Have you gotten the feeling yet that it was a slightly difficult environment for the Tar Heels as the road team on Wednesday?
Senior Nate Britt has played a few road games in his UNC tenure. “I’d say this one was right up there with the game at Duke last year and the game at Michigan State my freshman year in terms of that kind of environment,” Britt said.
That environment stung the Tar Heels. The 76-67 defeat was largely sealed in the opening ten minutes, when Indiana built a stunning 26-9 lead. During that span, Carolina’s offense consisted largely of rushed, shaky-looking jumpers, and included almost no post opportunities.
Roy Williams said after the game that “27,000 things” went wrong in the first half. The Tar Heels missed free throws, never found an offensive rhythm, and didn’t defend with the same edge they had in Maui. That leaves 26,997 other issues, but those three were enough to allow a jacked-up Indiana team to race to a quick lead it never relinquished.
There was plenty of talk after Maui that Carolina might be the best team in the nation. But all that chatter included the key word—might. Even after Wednesday, the Tar Heels very well might be. But it’s not an overwhelming certainty, not one of those seasons when Carolina is clearly stacked beyond every other program. What did we learn on Wednesday? That the Tar Heels aren’t such overwhelming favorites that they can afford to disappear for a quarter of the game and still beat one of the nation’s top 15 teams on the road in that team's key home game of the season.
Be honest: we pretty much already knew that, didn’t we?
It’s fine to be disturbed by the loss. But we won’t really know how meaningful this defeat was until February or March. You were frustrated watching the game because you already knew—and probably shouted at the TV—you can’t take those kinds of shots and you can’t commit lane violations that give them a free point and you can’t continually let them drive to the rim and you just can't play this way on the road.
And in theory, maybe it’s possible that the 2016-17 Tar Heels are so delicate that they shrivel every time they walk into a hostile gym, and they never learn any of those lessons. But the guess here is that’s highly unlikely, and this loss will pay dividends when Carolina opens the ACC season with two straight road games. “I told them we’ve got 19 games just like this one left,” Williams said. It’s no coincidence there are 18 ACC games plus Kentucky remaining.
The head coach was plenty frustrated after the game. But it’s also hard to argue his record in February and March during his tenure at Carolina, and the fact that he tends to use these November games as teaching moments. On Wednesday, while electing not to use a single timeout as he instead tried to see how his team would work through multiple difficult stretches, he experimented with some lineups that aren’t likely to see the court together in March. It might have been maddening on Wednesday. But it might be helpful in March, when the season will actually be judged.
“We have to take experience from this game,” said Kenny Williams, who contributed in multiple ways in his first lengthy exposure to an extremely hostile road environment. “The more you do something like this, the more comfortable you become with it. We have to make sure this creates added poise for the next game and for down the road. Playing on the road is about poise and confidence. Once you’ve been there before, you know how to handle it.”
Another reason to suspect this loss will be little but an afterthought in March: Roy Williams. The head coach simply loves playing on the road, and this year’s team has taken on his personality already at multiple times this year.
After the game, he was still so miffed about his team’s effort that he visibly gritted his teeth as he said, “If I go into your house, I know it’s going to be tougher for me to beat you.” (Now, here come the gritted teeth) “And I know, by God, I’m going to play harder to beat you in your house.”
To Williams’ obvious chagrin, that didn’t happen on Wednesday. But it’s a very long season. We won’t know until Dec. 31 at Georgia Tech, and Jan. 3 at Clemson, and seven more instances after that, whether the trip to Bloomington was beneficial.
“Having experienced guys means we have to know this was a lesson learned,” Britt said. “Indiana is a great team, and that was the first big away game for a lot of our young guys, plus our sophomores who are playing a lot more than last year. They might not know yet that every game in the ACC is going to be just like this, especially on the road. To be the kind of team we want to be, we have to learn from this and capitalize on it.”