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UNC vs Northern Iowa: Game Preview

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UNC kicks off their title defense. Finally.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina Midnight Madness Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

It’s here. Finally. Rejoice. Tar Heel fans, let your excitement bubble over. In a little more than 24 hours, the North Carolina men’s basketball team officially begins their title defense. The Panthers of Northern Iowa will battle the Heels for a third consecutive season. It’s the second straight year they visit Chapel Hill.

Once again, they face a short-handed UNC team. In 2015 they defeated a Marcus Paige-less team in Iowa. Last season they lost in Chapel Hill, despite the absence of Theo Pinson. In this season’s rubber match, Joel Berry will be sidelined with a broken hand. Here’s hoping this outcome mimics last season’s dominating 85-42 victory.

Now, a quick look at both teams as they prepare for their season opener.

Northern Iowa

Two seasons ago, the Panthers were within 30 seconds of dancing into the Sweet 16. Then a collapse of epic proportions crushed their dreams. Their three leading scorers departed after that season, and a young team scratched out a 14-16 (9-9) record last year, good for third in the one-bid Missouri Valley Conference. Though they lost leading scorer and rebounder Jeremy Morgan to graduation, UNI returns five seniors from last season’s squad (and nine underclassmen).

They’ll be led by senior forward Bennett Koch (6’10”, 239). He is the leading returning scorer after averaging 11.0 ppg and was third on the team in in rebounding with 3.8 rpg. Last season he hit 57% of his field goals. Having not attempted a single three-point field goal last season, expect him to do most of his damage in and around the paint. You know. Right where UNC has significant questions.

He’ll be joined down low by fellow senior Klint Carlson (6-7, 225). His average of 8.5ppg was third best last season, while his 4.9 rpg lead all returning contributors. He’ll bring some inside-out versatility, after shooting 25% on 3.2 three-point attempts per game.

After losing last year’s starting backcourt to graduation, the perimeter is more of a mystery. Keep an eye on sophomore sharpshooter Spencer Haldeman. As a freshman, he shot 31% from three on 5.1 attempts per game. He’s likely to see more than the 22 minutes per game he earned last year, and with less competition in the backcourt, will have a green light to fire away. Plus, if there is one thing more consistent than death and taxes, it’s the Heels allowing an unheralded perimeter player to scorch the nets on the way to a career high.

North Carolina

At this point, you probably know the Heels inside and out. However, with so many arrivals and departures, this off-season has been unique. You can check out our previews below:

Freshmen
Sophomores
Juniors
Seniors (and Cam)
2017 Schedule Breakdown
2017 Strengths and Weaknesses

Truthfully, looking at last year’s stats is misleading when discussing the current team. Regardless of so many familiar faces, this is a completely different squad than last year. Roy Williams has already tinkered with numerous line-ups, never letting the public (and opposing teams) to get a feel for what to expect. Berry’s absence has only added to the intrigue.

Theo Pinson, Seventh Woods, and Jalek Felton are all expected to spend time at the point guard position. Pinson is arguably the team’s best returning playmaker after averaging 3.8 assists per game last year. Felton has the athletic potential to be this year’s premier facilitator. Meanwhile, one would imagine Woods, who delivered uneven performances in the pre-season, is just one break-out game away from finding the confidence that he admits was difficult to maintain last year.

The biggest takeaway has been that despite all of the chatter about “small ball” lineups, Williams has still trotted out multiple conventional lineups with two traditional post players. This is not unexpected. His philosophy of shooting a high volume of shots and corralling the offensive glass is not going to change. Garrison Brooks, Sterling Manley, and Brandon Huffman will all get adequate opportunities to contribute.

Whether or not that will be the most successful method for this particular team remains to be seen.

What to Expect

As is common with most successful mid-majors, the Panthers rely on a slow tempo on both ends of the court, winning the turnover battle, and using three point attempts as the focal point of their offense. The numbers at KenPom.com support this.

In 2016-2017 their adjusted tempo was the 332th fastest in the nation. They forced a turnover on 20.9% of their defensive possessions, and over 36% of their points come from behind the arc. A year older and wiser than the team that got drubbed 85-42 last year, expect more of the same from the Panthers

However, even without Joel Berry, UNC has the talent and experience to win by 20. Northern Iowa will be extremely vulnerable against the breakneck speed that has become customary under Roy’s squads. With nine underclassmen, UNI likely doesn’t have the depth to go a full 40 minutes at UNC’s pace. Unless of course, the Tar Heels are unable to perform at their traditional speed.

With the Heels’ hampered at point guard, maintaining tempo and possession of the ball may be more difficult than fans expect. If UNC struggles early with sloppy turnovers and shot selection, Northern Iowa has the ability to hang around – much like Tennessee and Davidson last season. Especially if the Heels cannot control the boards against Northern Iowa’s senior-laden front line.

Unquestionably, there will be mistakes and frustrations. Fortunately, there should also be Brandon Huffman dunks, Cam Johnson stroking it from deep, and Luke Maye doing Luke Maye things. It’s also safe to assume that Roy Williams won’t approach this game in the same manner that he approached Barton or last weekend’s jamboree.

Bring on Northern Iowa.