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UNC vs. Northern Iowa: Three things to watch

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What to look for when the Heels return to the Smith Center Wednesday

2016 CBS Sports Classic - Kentucky v North Carolina Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The #8 North Carolina Tar Heels will play tomorrow evening at 8:00 PM in a matchup against Northern Iowa. Last year, the Panthers upset the top-ranked Tar Heels in Cedar Falls, Iowa. In that game, Carolina was up nine at half, but went absolutely cold in the second half. UNC did not score any points for about five minutes in the middle of the half to allow UNI to pull ahead and eventually pull out a four-point victory.

Needless to say, the Tar Heels should not look past Northern Iowa. After the Kentucky game, a letdown may be expected. Instead, Carolina should compete at a high level and focus on improving in this next-to-last game before conference play. Here are three things to watch on Wednesday versus Northern Iowa.

Stay Out of Foul Trouble

In the game against Kentucky, Carolina’s foul troubles were an issue. The merits of some of those called fouls may be questioned. It is hard to adjust to how the calls are made when the pendulum swings between calling touch-fouls and allowing stiff arms and tackles.

However, at the end of the day, you cannot blame the refs. The Tar Heels cannot be in a situation where three starters and the first big man off the bench are in foul trouble. Joel Berry II and Kennedy Meeks both fouled out against Kentucky, and Isaiah Hicks was limited to about 15 minutes of game time because of three first half fouls. UNC, especially in the front court, must work on positioning and avoiding “gimme” fouls, like reach-ins. Carolina will have the height and athletic advantage against Northern Iowa, and should use the opportunity to return to fundamentals.

Get to the Line, and Sink ‘Em

To be clear, this is certainly not a knock on Justin Jackson, who had uncharacteristic misses from the free throw line against Kentucky. This is a comment about consistency as a team. This year, Carolina is shooting 71.2 percent as a team from the free throw line this year. To compare, the Heels shot 71.8 percent as a team last season through December 19, 2015, and ended the year at 74.7 percent, good for 26th in the nation. These statistics are available through the NCAA’s archived stats site.

This year’s team is not far off the mark of a really good free throw shooting team. Since making all 12 free throws against Wisconsin in the Maui Invitational championship game, the Heels have been up-and-down from the stripe:

Opponent

UNC Free Throw Percentage

Indiana

59.1

Radford

62.1

Davidson

79.4

Tennessee

54.2

Kentucky

75.0

The Kentucky game was an improvement in the free throw percentage department, and the 21 makes on 28 attempts were key to the Heels staying in the game. In fact, Carolina had the same number of made free throws as Kentucky had total attempts. This is a good take away from that game.

In the loss against Indiana and the come-from-behind victory against Tennessee, the free throw percentages numbers are glaring examples of its importance to victory. Once again, UNC needs to drive to the basket and go up strong on second chance attempts against UNI. The Tar Heels need to get into a habit of creating offense from those high-percentage shots and converting on trips to the foul line.

Sustain the Emotion

This was a key before the season started, and remains relevant today. This midweek tip off during winter break after a nationally televised instant classic has all the makings for a trap game. The Heels cannot let up, especially after a gutsy performance. Carolina was down 10 points at the 7:47 mark of the second half, and never could seem to get past a four-point deficit. However, even with a short bench due to foul trouble and an opposing player that could not miss, the Heels hung tough, got the lead with a minute and a half left, and had chances to win or force overtime up to the final whistle.

A comment made in my Tar Heel group text was this team has “true grit.” This team has the hustle and toughness to be special, but that is an effort that has to be made every night, no matter the opponent. Watch to see if the Heels stay true to their identity against Northern Iowa.