Mike Gesell had 16 points, including a game-winning and-one with 1:16 left in the second half, to lead Iowa to a much-needed 60-55 win over No. 12 North Carolina in Chapel Hill on Wednesday night.
The Hawkeyes missed on a couple of chances to beat potential tournament teams when they went 0-2 at the 2K Sports Classic in New York last month, and with a visit from No. 20 Iowa State being their only other opportunity to notch a marquee non-conference win, the value gets magnified.
And the way that Iowa won this game matters, as well. The Hawkeyes, who had a well-deserved reputation for not being able to defend anyone last season, held the Tar Heels to 27.9 percent shooting from the floor and a 4-for-23 performance from beyond the arc. Granted, they also gave up 24 offensive rebounds, but they limited UNC’s second-chance points and, frankly, made sure that the only good offense that the Tar Heels could run would be gathering a missed shot.
Simply put: Iowa was tougher.
It’s also important to note that this game came on a night where Aaron White and Jarrod Uthoff combined to go 2-for-19 from the floor. That’s not going to happen to often, so if Iowa can find a way to bring this kind of defensive effort while cleaning up their issues on the glass, they should be able to put together enough good wins to earn an at-large bid.
That does come with a caveat, however: I’m not quite sure how much of this loss was simply a result of North Carolina not being all that good and/or not playing all that well.
For starters, Marcus Paige has to be better. He’s a preseason all-american. He can’t for 4-for-16 on a night like this, and he can’t pick up a charge with North Carolina down by three in the final minute. And he certainly can’t have nights where he has no assists and three turnovers, not with the issues that this team has scoring the ball.
That’s actually the bigger problem. Who is UNC’s second option offensively? Is it Kennedy Meeks? He’s putting up some big numbers this season, but he’s also doing quite a bit of his damage off of offensive rebounds. When he gets the ball in the post, he gets surrounded by defenders because the Tar Heels don’t have enough shooters to keep defenses honest. You can double off of Brice Johnson. You can double off of J.P. Tokoto. You can double off of Nate Britt and Theo Pinson.
The guy that North Carolina needs to be a secondary perimeter option is Justin Jackson. He’s averaging 11.0 points, but he’s just 4-for-16 from three in seven games and does not appear to be all that confident in that shot right now.
Until Jackson — or someone — steps up consistently, the Tar Heels are going to have to win some games that are this ugly.
Do they have the roster to do it?