Iowa Hawkeyes (4-2) vs. North Carolina Tar Heels (5-1)
Date: December 3, 2014
Time: 6:30 p.m. CT
Location: Dean Smith Center, Chapel Hill
Point spread: North Carolina -9.5
Welcome to the big time.
After years of also-ran status in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, the expectations surrounding Fran McCaffery's squad got it a primetime spot against a top-notch opponent. The Hawkeyes travel to North Carolina Wednesday night, where they are significant underdogs against No. 12 North Carolina. Tip is scheduled for 6:30 on ESPN.
If anyone thought that the Tar Heels weren't worthy of a top 20 position after last week's upset loss to Butler at the Battle 4 Atlantis, they were proven wrong the rest of the week. Carolina followed that loss by hammering [RECACTED]'s UCLA Bruins 78-56, then coasting past Florida 75-64 the following night. Iowa is the fourth straight Tar Heels opponent in the Kenpom top 40 -- one of six on the UNC non-conference schedule at the moment -- so there is no question of their testing so far.
So what did Butler do against North Carolina that UCLA and Florida were unable to duplicate? Shockingly, it had nothing to do with tempo: The Tar Heels are the nation's most up-tempo major-conference team -- it's Roy Williams, after all -- and posted a blistering 76-possession pace against Butler, its most of the year. It had nothing to do with Marcus Paige, who posted 18 points (albeit on 5/17 from the field). It wasn't just a bad night of shooting for North Carolina or a great one for Butler: The Tar Heels shot 22/57, while Butler was 22/72. It was that Butler got 15 more shots than North Carolina despite playing even in turnovers, because Butler destroyed North Carolina on the glass. The Bulldogs managed 29 offensive rebounds and 17 more overall rebounds than the Tar Heels (and that the game got to 76 possessions despite one team getting 29 offensive boards is insane).
In fact, if there is one thing that North Carolina has struggled with, it's defensive rebounding. UNC lets opponents rebound 37 percent of misses. It's a strange problem for a team that gets 41 percent of available offensive rebounds on the other end, one of the best offensive rebound rates in the nation, but it's their problem regardless.
Otherwise, the Tar Heels are solid across the board. UNC is 20th nationally in offensive efficiency, with some mediocre-to-poor shooting (just a 49 percent effective rate from the field, and 31 percent from behind the arc) canceled out by that offensive rebounding and a high number of possessions. On defense, North Carolina blocks a ton of shots -- 18 percent of all opponent attempts get sent back -- and forces bad shots when they aren't blocked. As bad as UNC's shooting has been, opponents are considerably worse, an absurdly bad 39 percent effective rate from the field, 38 percent from inside the three-point line and 28 percent from behind the arc. UNC doesn't force that many turnovers, but again, it's better than their opponents. From there, the Tar Heels turn up the pace to the point where the field goal percentage difference should play out to a win.
Obviously, any discussion of UNC starts with Marcus Paige, the Cedar Rapids native running the point in Chapel Hill. Paige (6'1, 175, 15.2 ppg, 3.5 apg) plays more minutes, scores more points, takes more shots, and shoots better from the free throw line than any other Tar Heel. He also takes more three-point shots than anyone in Carolina blue, though that is more a function of a team that is lacking in perimeter scoring threats than anything about Paige (six attempts a game isn't exactly Chris Kingsbury). Paige is joined in the UNC backcourt by junior J.P Tokoto (6'6, 200, 8.7 ppg, 4.5 apg), who has a higher assist total and rate than Paige despite being five inches taller. But between Paige's explosiveness and shooting and Totoko's length and distribution, the Tar Heels are certainly dangerous in the backcourt.
The frontcourt is a bit more of a mixed bag. Yes, all three Carolina starting forwards average double-digits, and sophomore center Kennedy Meeks (6'9, 290 lbs., 13.8 ppg, 9.7 rpg) has developed into a consistent threat at both ends of the court. Yes, he's 290 pounds. Yes, it's all muscle. And yes, he can run the court, crash the glass, and hammer away at taller guys. But after Meeks, Carolina looks fairly pedestrian. Junior Brice Johnson (6'9, 228, 11.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg) is technically the power forward, while freshman Justin Jackson (6'8, 193, 11.7 ppg) is still finding his way.
Unlike many teams that run as much as Carolina does, the Tar Heels don't come in waves. Rather, their starters combine for 63 percent of available minutes, and just four other players have averaged more than nine minutes a game. Much like Iowa, UNC has opted for a lineup composed largely of 6'8-ish swingmen, with guys like Isaiah Hicks (6'8, 230, 7.8 ppg) and Theo Pinson (6'8, 195, 2.7 ppg) getting the bulk of minutes off the bench. Paige and Totoko are spelled by sophomore Nate Britt (6'1, 170, 5.2 ppg) and freshman Joel Berry II (6'0, 195, 2.2 ppg).
If you were going to create a team that could hang with UNC, it would look a lot like Iowa. The length of White, Uthoff, Olaseni and (increasingly) Uhl should nullify North Carolina's length in the frontcourt. Anthony Clemmons has proven a capable enough defender to stay with Paige (though damn the torpedoes if Mike Gesell is put on Paige). Iowa is capable enough on the offensive glass to get second chance points, and Aaron White is particularly adept at taking advantage of such opportunities. Where UCLA and Florida were able to neutralize North Carolina on the glass -- something Iowa will absolutely have to do if it has a chance to win -- they didn't have the size inside to effectively stop Meeks (UCLA added to the pain by turning the ball over at every available opportunity, something that will destroy you against UNC's transition game, and shooting about 8 percent from the field).
The problems for Iowa come primarily from Meeks, the exact type of wide-bodied, physical pseudo-center that has troubled Iowa for years. His size -- not height, but size -- nullifies Gabe Olaseni as a shot blocker and makes rebounding extremely difficult. Throw in Iowa's lackluster defensive rebounding so far this year, and the chances of North Carolina bleeding Iowa to death with second-chance points looks very high. But if Iowa can use Woodbury, Olaseni and its trio of big forwards to keep North Carolina out of the paint and push its offense to the perimeter, it's got a fighting chance.