Iowa's Wednesday night match up with North Carolina is easily their biggest ACC/Big Ten Challenge game in recent memory. After toiling in the dark ages of the Lickliter years, Iowa is now going through an enlightenment period where they are looking nationally relevant again. That means the Hawkeyes no longer get the Virginia Tech's, the Boston College's and the Clemson's of the ACC. Rather, last year Iowa played Notre Dame (better than the other three previously listed) and this year Iowa gets a crack at the crème de la crème in North Carolina.
In addition to playing against a top opponent in this early season challenge, Iowa fans also get a crack at one of their arch enemies outside of the Big Ten: Roy Williams. Ol' Roy has made a career of poaching the elite talent that our beautiful state has produced. When he was at Kansas he lured away Nick Collison, Kirk Hinrich, and Raef Lafrentz. Since being at North Carolina, he has enticed away Harrison Barnes (who Iowa had legitimately no chance at landing) and now his current starting point guard, Marcus Paige. Iowa's only real victory over Williams is Fran convincing Adam Woodbury to come to Iowa, despite the fact that his good friend Paige was heading to Chapel Hill. Thank you, Adam.
That being said, avenging the penetration of our state borders is more of a secondary importance in this game. For the actual players, this game is a statement to show that they can hang with the big boys. After all, if we as fans are tired of losing these big games, imagine how they must feel.
When Iowa has the Ball
Note: All Kenpom rankings are from Tuesday (when I was writing this), so if they are slightly different at the time you are reading this, that is why. Also, a reminder on how to read this chart: 100 = Division 1 average. Anything above 100 is above average, while anything below 100 is below average. The bigger the number, the better.
Iowa's offense has been decent so far this season, but it's safe to say that it isn't quite at the elite level that it was last year. They don't shoot the ball particularly well; turnovers have been an issue at times; and for whatever reason, they just aren't getting to the free throw line at the same rate that we are used to under McCaffery (Aaron White and Gabe Olaseni being the only ones absolved from that statement). If there has been one saving grace on offense, it has been offensive rebounding. Aaron White is a master garbage man under the basket, while Adam Woodbury and Gabe Olaseni are both pulling down about 12% of Iowa's misses this season. For reference, Kenpom has Woodbury at #163 in the nation in offensive rebounding rate, and Gabe at #202.
Luckily for McCaffery's men, North Carolina isn't particularly great at boxing out and securing defensive rebounds. Because, while Iowa is 17% better than the average D-1 team when it comes to offensive rebounding, North Carolina is 17% worse than the average D-1 team. That's not to say they have a terrible defense, though, because they don't. They are making life hell on their opponents when it comes to trying to score on them. Thanks to an insane ability to block shots, the Tar Heels have been 19% better than the norm at forcing missed shots. They've also been adept at forcing turnovers this year, especially via the steal in order to get out on the break.
So, yes, Iowa may be able to clean up on the offensive glass, but it wouldn't be all that surprising to see them struggle from the field and for the turnover bug to bite them once again.
Advantage: North Carolina
When North Carolina has the Ball
Despite quite the opposite last season, Iowa has been better on defense than offense so far this year. Texas is the only opponent to average more than 1 point per possession (PPP) against the Hawkeyes this season, and they only did it because of that insane second half they had. Outside of that half of basketball, Iowa's defense has not allowed 1 PPP in their other 13 halves of basketball this season. Just like we saw with North Carolina above, Iowa does this by stonewalling opposing offenses when it comes to shooting the ball. They also do a great job of blocking shots, as their blocked shot rate is not far behind North Carolina's. Of course, this Hawkeye team also forces turnovers at a high rate, and does so by jumping passing lanes in order to get fast break opportunities. Unlike North Carolina's defense, though, Iowa absolutely does not give up cheap fouls and allow their opponent to beat them at the free throw line.
Carolina, meanwhile, shoots the ball just about as well as Iowa on offense, but they make up for being merely average in this category by crashing the offensive glass and getting to the free throw line. They also don't waste many possessions by coughing up the ball.
Overall, Iowa has been vulnerable when it comes to defensive rebounding this year, but they more than make up for it with how well they have altered their opponents' shots. Each team seems to have the advantage in those two categories, while the turnover and free throw battle seem to be pretty even. I'd have to say this battle is a toss-up.
Team Shooting Tendencies
Iowa has been fairly balanced with their shot selection this year. White, Olaseni, and Woodbury all do their work down low, while Uthoff, Oglesby, Clemmons, etc. have taken to shooting from beyond the arc.
North Carolina does a little shooting from distance, but they aren't particularly good at it. Instead, they prefer to get baskets in transition and work the ball down low to their big guys.
In general, though, neither team shoots the ball extremely well, but both of them do defend really well. Carolina has been better from inside the arc this year, but Iowa has been the better team from beyond three and at the free throw line.
Oddly enough, the shot distribution for this year's iteration of the Iowa Hawkeyes is much closer to the average D-1 team than in past year's under McCaffery. Normally we are used to seeing a lot more twos than threes (like what we see with North Carolina in the chart above) but not this year. That's going to be a little weird to get used to.
Because the Hawkeyes have a more normal shot distribution and they aren't getting to the free throw line as much this year (could these two data points be linked?), the Hawkeyes have a pretty normal point distribution since they are right around the norm when it comes to putting the ball in the hoop. North Carolina, on the other hand, has more of a point distribution that us Iowa fans are used to, thanks to their style of play.
Opposing Players to Know
First and foremost, Iowa will need a big game out of their front court against North Carolina. Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson are number one and two on the team when it comes to possessions used on the Tar Heel roster, and they are both high-volume, high-efficiency scorers.
The 6'9" 290 lb. Meeks does most of his damage at the rim.
The skinnier Johnson does a lot of damage by the basket, but seems to have a little more range than Meeks.
Both big men are great at rebounding (Meeks, especially), blocking shots, and drawing fouls. And even when one of Meeks and Johnson are on the bench, Isaiah Hicks can come into the game and do very similar things.
Hicks doesn't grab defensive rebounds as well as the duo above, but his offensive rebounding, blocks, and foul-drawing skills are just as good.
Out on the perimeter, Marcus Paige has been the main threat from long range for this Carolina team, making 15 of his team-leading 38 attempts (39.5%).
Paige is also a decent assist man, who doesn't show a propensity to turn the ball over.
As for the team's main assist guy, that would be J.P. Tokoto. He's a tall wing player who isn't the most efficient scorer in the world, but he is good at getting to the free throw line due to his tendency to attack the basket.
Finally, the Tar Heels have an impressive looking freshman in Justin Jackson. He has been the most efficient scorer who doesn't play in the post for North Carolina so far this season.
He also has an impressively low turnover rate for a freshman and has shown the ability to pick the other team's pocket on several occasions.
What Kenpom Thinks
Projected Score: Iowa 72, North Carolina 79
Projected Odds of an Iowa Win: 24%
Projected Possessions: 77
Projected Points Per Possession: Iowa 0.94, North Carolina 1.03
Iowa and North Carolina are two very similar teams with somewhat similar styles; namely, up tempo offense and high pressure defense that feeds into easy baskets and free throw attempts. The Tar Heels are currently 8th in the nation in adjusted tempo with almost 74 possessions per game with each one of those possessions lasting an average of 15 seconds (17.9 D-1 average). The Hawkeyes aren't too far behind, though, sitting at 50th in the country in adjusted tempo and holding onto the ball for 16 seconds at a time (it's early in the season and those numbers are dragged down thanks to playing a ridiculously slow Northern Illinois team). Both squads take about a third of their shot attempts in transition, and both love to attack the rim and get to the free throw line. If this was last season, both teams would be almost identical in the way they play the game, but this year Iowa seems to be playing a little more perimeter-oriented than in year's past due to their personnel. Still, both teams have strengths in the post, and both teams are going to look to attack the basket.
Iowa is more than capable of hanging with North Carolina, but getting a win on the road at Chapel Hill looks difficult. This North Carolina team is one of the best shot-blocking teams in the nation and they almost always have a lid on the basket when playing defense. Iowa struggled to score at the rim against two other elite shot-blocking teams in Texas and Syracuse, so don't be surprised if the Hawkeyes have issues driving to the basket against the Tar Heels. Forcing turnovers and getting easy buckets in transition would seem the best bet if Iowa doesn't want to worry about having their shot launched into the first row. This would also be a good game for Iowa to knock down their shots from distance. Jarrod Uthoff will be a key player per usual, but getting good games out of Josh Oglesby and Anthony Clemmons from three point range would also really help.
Luckily for Iowa, while they may not look great offensively against North Carolina, they have been very good on defense and the Tar Heels aren't exactly a lights-out shooting team. If the Hawkeye bigs can guard the basket and avoid fouling North Carolina's bevy of big men and putting them on the free throw line, they should have a chance in this game.