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Iowa Hoops: #3 Hawkeyes face #16 North Carolina

The top 25 matchup is among the best from this year’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina Central at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

““And Here. We. Go” - The late Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight, circa 2008” - Jon Rothstein

The #3 Iowa Hawkeyes (3-0) schedule takes a huge leap forward to face the #16 North Carolina Tar Heels (3-1) in the first of two highly anticipated non-conference matchup this season. North Carolina were runners-up to Texas in Bill Walton’s Maui Invitational where they beat Stanford & UNLV. Their first win was against Charleston.

It marks Roy Williams’ 18th season in Chapel Hill where he has compiled a resume which includes three NCAA championships and two more Final Four appearances.

They’re coming of a season which did not live up to expectations, as they went 14-19 and were likely to miss March Madness barring an ACC tournament run. They lost Cole Anthony to the draft and a couple seniors to graduation but return Garrison Brooks, Armando Bacot, and Leaky Black to build around with 247’s #2 recruiting class from 2020.

The last time these teams faced off, the oldest of these players involved were juniors in high school so there’s really connection between Iowa’s 60-55 win in Chapel Hill other than Fran, Roy, and Hawkeye Elvis.

North Carolina is about where one would expect a team with an even mix of highly touted returnees and talented freshman. KenPom has them a shade below Iowa at 14th vs. 11th, balanced between good offense (#26) and better defense (#14). He has their strength of schedule well above Iowa’s at 57th vs 280th, which puts their scoring averages - 72.8 for and 60.8 against - into a little different context.

The 72.8 is just barely over last year’s 72.2 and well behind a normal Roy Williams team as this iteration struggles through poor shooting (45.2% eFG) and turnovers (22.1% / 15.5 per game). To their credit, the 60.8 is well below normal opponent averages and will prove to be a step up for the Hawkeyes later tonight.

Three Guys

Garrison Brooks (F, 6’10”, 240 lbs): Brooks was voted the preseason ACC player of the year after a 16.8 point/8.5 rebound-per game 2019-20 but is currently faced with an ankle injury which has held him out of practice this week. If he goes, he will operate from the power forward spot and poses an immediate problem for Iowa with his size and skill.

As the #1 line on opponent scouting reports, his shooting percentage has dipped to 44.2% but he makes up for it with tenacity on the offensive boards and getting to the free throw line. Whoever is tasked with guarding him will have their hands full.

UNC’s other three bigs: Why do I lump Armando Bacot, Day’ron Sharpe, and Walker Kessler into the same line here? Well, they are each former 5-star big guys who look and play the part at 6’10”/240 lbs, 6’11”/265 lbs, and 7’1”/245 lbs and will each get a crack at Luka Garza with Bacot batting leadoff. Perhaps more importantly is what they can do to Iowa on the offensive end - all three have top 450 “foul drawn” rates according to KenPom, though Kessler (team-high 6.9 fouls/40 minutes) doesn’t qualify at just 9 minutes a game.

Bacot and Sharpe are particularly strong defensively and (coincidentally?) have their minutes add up to exactly 100%, per KenPom. Sharpe is particularly gnarly as a defender with an 11.7% block rate (1.8/game). All are strong on the offensive boards as UNC mitigates their offensive deficiencies with making life hell on the glass.

RJ Davis (G, 6’0”, 160 lbs): The freshman is a shooting guard in a point guard’s body and is currently the team’s leading three-point shooter at 6/13 (46.2%) on the season. When fellow frosh, Caleb Love, sits, Davis will take over the point guard duties. He is, perhaps, the most important player for UNC tonight as a potential zone buster.

In a bit of a human interest angle for tonight’s game, Davis goes back to his high school days with Joe Toussaint. If Iowa struggles to contain him, Fran McCaffery is likely to lean on Toussaint as the “stopper” given his defensive skillset and knowledge of how Davis is likely to play.

Three Questions

How does Fran McCaffery approach the size disadvantage? North Carolina is unique in their ability to throw body after body after body after body at Luka Garza inside. They may need each of the four bigs to cycle through defending Garza as LG has posted a laughable 9.4 fouls drawn/40 minutes according to KenPom.

If only it were as simple as getting four guys into foul trouble.

Iowa will be faced with staving off a rebounding onslaught by North Carolina. Man-to-man offers the “simple” assignments of boxing your guy out but it is a tall task to ask Connor McCaffery to keep somebody five inches and 30 pounds bigger than him, minimum, off the glass with consistency. Go zone, and the job of locking down the boards becomes a team effort which hinges on communication, strength, and resolve.

I suspect we see a heavy dose of Jack Nunge alongside Garza to neutralize the size disadvantage. Both are experienced and selfless in terms of doing the dirty work. It likely means Iowa’s guards play an outsized role in defensive rebounding if the Hawkeye bigs are preoccupied boxing out UNC’s but it exposes Iowa to the potential of their own issue of foul trouble.

Does Iowa’s newfound depth come through? Patrick McCaffery and Keegan Murray are feel-good stories through three games against lesser competition. They’ll be relied upon to help Iowa seal off the boards. The pair was also a key component in Iowa’s most impressive defensive stretch against Western Illinois and North Carolina is no Western Illinois.

Being able to go toe-to-toe with UNC’s bigs (and Leaky Black, who was overlooked in the “Three Guys” portion of the column despite himself being a former four-star recruit) will offer an insight into what the two are capable of as Iowa’s season turns to January and the games become more physical.

Who makes shots? Luka Garza has been tremendous inside because each of Iowa’s three previous opponents have been less-than-stellar. I suspect Garza will still get his, albeit less efficiently, but Iowa will need the likes of Joe Wieskamp, Jordan Bohannon, & CJ Fredrick to hit the shots we know they’re capable of. Other guys will likely have to come through when tasked with an open shot.

Yet UNC has not faced an offense like Iowa’s even though they are operating at a less than optimal-for-them output. Iowa’s eFG%, turnover, offensive rebounding, and foul rates are the best of any UNC opponent so far this season.

In other words, Iowa offers their own advantages over UNC and it will be incumbent on Iowa to capitalize on them.

This game has been circled as one to watch since it was scheduled and offers a tremendous insight into just how well Iowa can play. The “exciting” “challenge” North Carolina poses as a fun thought experiment is reduced to a bundle of stress inside of an empty arena once the ball is tipped off.

If Iowa can come away with a win, it is an early resume-booster barring another once-in-a-decade stinker of a season from a Roy Williams outfit. If they do not, teams will do whatever they can to recreate the issues exposed tonight. Knowing just how opposite the outcomes might be elevates the importance of this game if Iowa hopes to back up their talk of national title contenders.