At this time, North Carolina at Iowa is still expected to happen. That is a minor miracle considering games are being cancelled all over the country. Whatever your stance on playing competitive sports in the current environment, that’s just the reality we’re in right now. With increased travel and more competition than football or other fall sports with truncated schedules, basketball season will be more unpredictable than ever.
So, with that mutual understanding out of the way, let’s take a look at three things to watch when North Carolina (hopefully) takes the court at Iowa in the ACC-B1G Challenge.
Is Iowa more than Luka Garza?
This is going to be the main headline for the next 48 hours. A consensus first-team All-American last season, Luka Garza is averaging 34 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 2.7 blocks per game through Iowa’s first three games. The 6-11 senior has picked up right where he left off after averaging 23.9/9.8/1.8 last season.
And sure, those numbers came against North Carolina Central, Southern, and Western Illinois. That’s not exactly a tough early slate of games. But still, 34 points a game is borderline comical. It’s even more insane considering he’s only averaging 26 minutes per game.
However, is Iowa more than just Luka Garza’s seemingly superhuman inside-outside skillset?
Three other players are averaging double-digits, but one of them, fellow 6-11 forward Jack Nunge (18 ppg), has only played one game. Nunge missed the first two games after the passing of his father. After averaging just 5.0 points last season, it remains to be seen what kind of production he’ll give the Hawkeyes.
The other two players averaging double-digits are 6-6 junior guard Joe Wieskamp (12 ppg, 5.7 rpg) and 6-9 sophomore forward Patrick McCaffery (11 ppg, 4.0 rpg). Of that supporting trio, Wieskamp is the only one who significantly contributed last season. He is also the team’s second leading rebounder, whereas UNC has four players averaging 7 or more rebounds per game.
If the Heels are able to cool off Garza’s hot start, does Iowa have enough firepower at other positions?
North Carolina boasts four rotation players ranging from 6-8 to 7-1. However, four of Iowa’s top five scorers are between 6-8 and 6-11. Freshman forward Keegan Murray is averaging 8.7 points, joining the three other big men mentioned above (Garza, Nunge, and McCaffery). UNC hasn’t played that kind of size yet and could find it difficult to get in a groove. If that happens, it begs the question, can UNC’s perimeter win this game?
If North Carolina’s inside threats are neutralized, relying on a still developing (and not full-strength) perimeter may hurt the Heels’ chances in a road game against a top-5 opponent. R.J. Davis leads the team at just 12.3 ppg, while Caleb Love is tied with Armando Bacot for third on the team with 11.0 ppg. There isn’t a consistent third option or sharpshooter on the wings, and Love and Davis are averaging a combined 5.5 turnovers per game.
Plus, as a team, UNC is only hitting 27.1% of their three-point attempts on 14.8 attempts per game. Iowa is hitting **checks notes** 39% from deep, on 25.7 attempts per game.
Adding to UNC’s obstacles is that the hot shooting isn’t limited to Iowa’s guard play, putting additional strain on North Carolina’s big men. All four of their big men average over 2 three-point attempts per game, and all are making at least 37.5% of those shots. If any of the young freshmen for the Heels was going to have a “I have arrived” moment, tomorrow night would be a great opportunity.
As mentioned above, Iowa hasn’t faced anyone with the size and skill of UNC. How will they handle a starting Tar Heel lineup boasting three McDonald’s All-Americans, with two more coming off the bench? Will the Hawkeyes be able to score against a defense that according to KenPom, is the 14th best in the nation? That’s a far cry from the 276th, 280th, and 348th most efficient defenses in the land.
(For what it’s worth, I fully acknowledge it a little early in the season to be leaning into KenPom stats, but those numbers are fair representations of Iowa’s competition).
North Carolina, meanwhile, faced the #2 (Texas) and #4 (Stanford) defenses in the nation less than a week ago. While those numbers will change as the season goes along, that’s a stark difference in competition. That also helps explain some of their offensive struggles, though most fans are anxious for a more UNC-like 78 possession, 90-point performance. That probably won’t happen tomorrow, but cracking 80 points would be progress.
Besides, while those early tests help with growth and development, few of UNC’s regular contributors have not been through an entire college season like the more experienced Iowa lineup. Though, Iowa wasn’t exactly a behemoth last season, managing a rather pedestrian fifth place and 11-9 record the Big 10.
That’s the tough part with these early season games. They’re always a bit unpredictable, but even more so this year. How much early competition is too much, and what kind of flaws are covered up with cupcake schedules?
Hopefully we find out tomorrow night.