College basketball season is a mere 10 days old, and football has captured the minds and hearts of Northwestern sports fans, but already, the biggest day of the non-conference hoops season has arrived for Chris Collins and Northwestern. The Wildcats (3-0) are in Kansas City for the semifinals of the CBE Hall of Fame Classic, where they'll take on preseason No. 1 North Carolina (3-1).
Monday night is so momentous for Northwestern for a few reasons. First, it'll be one of only a few nights of basketball excitement until conference play begins in January. But second, and more important, it's a massive opportunity for the Wildcats. A win over UNC would be one around which the Wildcats could structure their résumé all season long, right up until and through March.
What makes Monday night intriguing though is that a Northwestern win isn't as much of a long shot as you might think. On the surface, this looks like an impending blowout. But the Wildcats are only 9.5-point underdogs in Las Vegas, and if past trends and recent performance are anything to base judgement off of, the oddsmakers are right to be skeptical of the Tar Heels' expected dominance.
More on NU vs. UNC
More on NU vs. UNC
Under Roy Williams, UNC has an oddly extensive history of early season flops, both in preseason tournaments and regular non-conference games. Back in 2004-05, Williams' first national title season in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels lost to Santa Clara on Nov. 19 in its season opener. Two years later, it was Gonzaga — without its best player, Adam Morrison — that tripped up the No. 2-ranked Tar Heels in the NIT Season Tip-Off semifinals.
Since the turn of the decade, UNC's struggles have continued:
2010 — No. 8 North Carolina lost back to back games to unranked Minnesota and unranked Vanderbilt at the Puerto Rico Season Tip-Off.
2011 — No. 1 North Carolina led at halftime, but unraveled in the second half and lost at unranked UNLV, 90-80.
2012 — No. 9 North Carolina was outscored 35-18 in the first half by unranked Butler, at one point trailed by 23, and eventually lost 82-71 in the Maui Invitational.
2013 — Unranked Belmont knocked off the 12th-ranked Tar Heels in Chapel Hill in mid-November. Two weeks later, on Dec. 1, No. 16 North Carolina lost on the road at unranked UAB.
2014 — No. 5 North Carolina won two games at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, but only after losing its opening round game to unranked Butler.
Could Northwestern be next in line on UNC's upset list?
Well, Northern Iowa already beat the Wildcats to the punch. The Panthers knocked off top-ranked Carolina 71-67 in Cedar Falls, Iowa on Saturday, coming from behind in the second half to do exactly what Collins and his team will hope to do Monday night.
On one hand, it's difficult to envision the Tar Heels stooping to the level of their competition two games in a row. The UNI loss might serve as a wake up call, and Carolina surely won't suffer from a lack of focus two days after the upset. But on the other hand, the Tar Heels will have to deal with the physical effects of playing the second of three games in four days in November.
They also might have been exposed Saturday. UNC has begun the 2015-16 campaign without its star starting point guard, senior Marcus Paige. Paige suffered a broken bone in his non-shooting right hand in practice in early November, and was ruled out for three to four weeks at the time. His absence didn't plague Roy Williams' team in wins over Temple, Fairfield and Wofford, but it did against Northern Iowa.
Paige is the Tar Heels' most indispensable player. He was the team's most efficient offensive player a year ago, and was the one player who could consistently facilitate offense. Williams has a ton of talent at his disposal, with the likes of Justin Jackson, Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks seemingly ready to make major leaps this season, but Paige was unique. He was UNC's best perimeter scorer, and the only Tar Heel who can distribute the ball to UNC's other weapons while also being a threat to score with his jump shot or on drives.
With Paige out, the offense doesn't flow as it usually does. That was the main takeaway from the loss to Northern Iowa. North Carolina's frontcourt couldn't dominate on the offensive end because Paige's replacements, Joel Berry and Nate Britt, didn't put it in position to do so. Neither Berry nor Britt emulated Paige's scoring ability either. Berry finished with 5 points on 2-7 shooting, and Britt scored just 4 on 1-6 shooting.
Additionally, UNC could be prone to cold streaks without their star. Here's what ESPN's CL Brown wrote in reaction to Saturday's game:
Paige's absence hurts more than the Tar Heels realized. It's not just a matter of outside shooting. The Heels have been better than expected from 3-point range. Nate Britt entered the game shooting 66 percent from 3-point range and Joel Berry II was at 41 percent. What was missing from the Heels' lineup was the big shot-maker. Paige is normally the one the Heels look for to bring calm when an opponent is making a run. When UNI overtook Carolina during a 20-4 run in the second half, the Heels didn't have any go-to player it could depend upon to make the crowd-quieting basket and end the Panthers' momentum.
It appears Paige will remain out for UNC's CBE Hall of Fame Classic Monday against Northwestern, which certainly gives the Wildcats more of a chance than they would've had with Paige in the Tar Heel lineup. The question is whether that increased chance is significant. North Carolina still has plenty of talent, height and athleticism, and should be able to dominate Northwestern on the glass. It's in games like these where Vic Law's absence will be felt most by Northwestern. With Law, the Wildcats had their most athletic rotation in years. Without him and his length and versatility, NU will be outmanned.
But what the Tar Heels no longer have is a distinct advantage in the backcourt. Thus, Northwestern's chance is to win a guard-oriented game. Tre Demps will have to shake off his the early season cobwebs and get back to his February 2015 form, something he was able to do in Northwestern's win over Columbia. Bryant McIntosh will have to continue to play the inspired basketball that propelled NU to an overtime win over the Lions on Friday night. The two will both have to do what Northern Iowa's Wes Washpun did to UNC (21 points, 8 assists, 9-15 field goals) if the Wildcats are to compete.
Even if everything goes to plan for Collins, Northwestern still has a tall task before it. Jackson and Johnson are matchup nightmares for NU, and the Wildcats' offense will be in for a rude awakening due to Carolina's length. But North Carolina sans Paige is not a top-five team; it might not even be a top-10 team. The possibility of an upset therefore cannot just be dismissed out of hand.