It was the kind of performance plenty of college basketball fans were curious about whether No. 3 Iowa could pull off.
And isn’t it an unusual notion: not often that a highly ranked team from the best conference in college hoops faces skepticism over its legitimacy, but the fact is we’re only two weeks into the season and Iowa was a sieve on defense last season. So getting a home game against 16th-ranked North Carolina set up a good stage and a fair prove-it opportunity for Fran McCaffrey’s Hawkeyes.
They passed the test to the tune of a 93-80 W. Sure Iowa has been ranked high in the polls, but advanced metrics still have this team outside the top 10. It’s fair to deduce we learned a few things about these two teams on Tuesday night. Here are the three biggest takeaways from Iowa’s second-biggest game of its nonconference season (vs. Gonzaga in South Dakota on Dec. 19 awaits).
Convincing win without Garza going gonzo
What if I told you that Iowa won by 13 over a ranked team and did so despite its best player — the early frontrunner for national player of the year — scoring fewer points than he had in his past 20 games? That’s what happened Tuesday. Luka Garza played well, but for him a 16-point effort is below the bar. Garza was good all around, though — he also snagged 14 rebounds and had four blocks.
Coming into the night Garza was averaging 34.0 points through three games, putting up 102 points against low-major competition. Regardless of the teams Iowa beat, the fact is Garza had a better scoring start to his season than any men’s Division I player in at least a decade, according to the ESPN broadcast. This was the 100th game of Garza’s Iowa career and it would not crack the top 30 of his best. The fact UNC couldn’t ultimately keep the outcome to single digits after erasing a 16-point deficit while at the same time keeping Garza in check is a huge positive for Iowa.
And after UNC took its first lead of the game at 67-66 with just under 10 minutes to go, Iowa unfurled a 14-0 run … that featured not one point from the Hawkeyes big man.
UNC’s bigs will get it to Big Dance
I wrote up top about some intrigue heading into this with Iowa but the same was true of UNC, a 3-1 team entering the night with its best win coming against a 2-2 Stanford team that was playing on the other side of the country (in Asheville) and has a head coach (Jerod Haase) who broke into the business by playing for Roy Williams at Kansas.
And then there’s the fact that UNC is coming off one of its worst seasons in school history, the 14-19 campaign that led to nowhere. So the fact it showed some guile and overcame at 16-point deficit and managed to take a lead against a Final Four hopeful in that team’s gym is a positive sign. UNC blasted out of the locker room to start the second half and had huge adjustments that pecked away at Iowa’s advantage. If not for consistent foul trouble with Carolina’s bigs, the game would have been much closer in margin.
The Tar Heels are going to be an NCAA Tournament team this season if we have an NCAA Tournament that is 64-68 teams. By the time March gets here, the collective talent and production of Garrison Brooks, Day’Ron Sharpe, Walker Kessler, Armando Bacot and Leaky Black will be as good as almost any other team’s frontcourt offering. Against Iowa those five men combined for 45 points, 35 rebounds … but just two blocks. They’ll get there. Caleb Love at point is going to take some time. Williams has won big with bigs before and he’ll do it again this season with this group. Forty-two points in the paint and 27 points off the bench is encouraging, while 13-of-27 on layups and dunks is not. UNC had 1.05 points per possession to Iowa’s 1.21.
Hawkeyes a joy to watch lob up the 3-pointers
I started with Garza, but the rest of the team won this game. These Hawkeyes let it fly from afar. Jordan Bohanan had 24 points and six assists, leading an Iowa effort that included 17 3-pointers on 40 attempts. Bohannon had seven baskets from beyond the arc himself, while CJ Fredrick and Joe Wieskamp each added five. Fran McCaffrey’s going to take that percentage every night — and he knows there were three or four trey attempts that should have fallen but didn’t.
Iowa bookended this game with some beautiful shot fakes and subsequent 3-pointers that tilted Carolina. Iowa’s been a well-oiled offensive unit for a few years now, but this can be the season that it all stirs to something sustainable at an elite level.
The common refrain with Iowa will be about how its defense has to markedly improve to give it a chance to make the Final Four. I wouldn’t go against that, but having watched some or all of three of Iowa’s four games this season, it’s looking like this is a team that will have the size and accuracy to outshoot its mistakes on defense way more often than not. It might choose to win 96-94 and have that go its way more often than not, thanks to having maybe the best player in the sport and an array of snipers laying waste beyond the perimeter.