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Game Preview: #1 UNC at Northern Iowa

Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

North Carolina at Northern Iowa, 2:00 PM, ESPN3

Marcus Paige's homecoming game and he won't be playing. Paige has said he hoped to return for this game which would be two weeks and four days after he broke a bone in his non-shooting hand on November 3rd. There was speculation of a possible return is an Inside Carolina video showing Paige shooting without a cast.  Clearly Paige is far enough long to shoot shots and catch the ball when it is thrown to him but not enough to play yet.

Generally speaking this type of game has produced various levels of danger for UNC. After all, the main reason you almost never see an Power 5 team, much less one in the Top 25, play a team of Northern Iowa''s ilk on the road is there is nothing to gain from it. It's a Kobyashi Maru game with so much more to be lost that gained in the long run should the Tar Heels stumble. Paige not playing affords UNC some insulation from criticism regarding a loss but it's still not ideal.

Even without Paige, this is a game UNC can and should win. The Panthers are in the midst of a rebuild of sorts after losing multiple key players to graduation including leading scorer Seth Tuttle. Northern Iowa worked its way up to a #5 seed in last season's NCAA Tournament falling to Louisville in the 2nd Round. Graduation has forced Northern Iowa to take a step back but not enough to make this easy for the Tar Heels. The Panthers spent the first two games taking 46% of all shots from three hitting 38% of them.  Senior guard Matt Bohannon is especially dangerous going 5-12 so far this season and 38.3% for his career from three in nearly 500 attempts.

Northern Iowa lacks depth in the frontcourt with only two players taller than 6-6. That works to UNC's favor in some respects but is also a concern if it puts Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks in a place where they are drawn away from the basket. This can be a bit nightmarish for UNC, especially if the Panthers possess enough perimeter scorers to give the Tar Heels fits.

For UNC, exploiting the overall depth advantage as well as the edge in the post will be key. Against Wofford, the tandem of Meeks and Johnson was efficient and nearly unstoppable. That should be a common theme for much of the season and very much so against a team like Northern Iowa. Assuming Paige does not play UNC will need continued solid play from Joel Berry and Nate Britt who have been doing the lion's share of the work in terms of perimeter scoring. At some point Justin Jackson will enter the fray as a legitimate offensive options thought it remains to be seen whether that happens before or after Paige returns to the lineup.

This game is the first of three straight away from Chapel Hill with UNC and the warm-up before the Tar Heels play back-to-back days in Kansas City. It can be a bit of a trap game much like playing Davidson before UNC went to the Bahamas last season. The Tar Heels handled that game quite well so a result along those lines in this one would be ideal.

UNC 81 Northern Iowa 71