North Carolina vs. Northwestern: What to watch

Northwestern coach Chris Collins directs his players against Columbia on Nov. 20. The Tar Heels face Collins and Northwestern tonight in the Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City.
Northwestern coach Chris Collins directs his players against Columbia on Nov. 20. The Tar Heels face Collins and Northwestern tonight in the Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City. AP

From the southwestern Virginia mountains, where North Carolina football clinched the Coastal Division on Saturday, to Kansas City, where North Carolina basketball will attempt to bounce back in a big way from a disappointing loss at Northern Iowa on Saturday.

Here I am, in the second-best region for BBQ I’ve been in today (woke up in the middle of North Carolina, after all, before getting on the plane).

So let’s get to it. The Tar Heels enter this game tonight at the Sprint Center in Kansas City amid some unexpected circumstances, coming off of a loss at Northern Iowa. A loss in which UNC, now ranked No. 9 after falling from the top spot, failed to hold a large second-half lead. Again. If that sounds familiar it’s because it is. UNC often did the same thing last year.

Entering this season we heard no shortage of talk – from coach Roy Williams, from his players – about the importance of finishing out games. Would UNC learn how to do it? Would the Tar Heels succumb to the kind of second-half lapses that doomed them so often a season ago?

The first three games went well enough. UNC put Temple away with little trouble in the season-opener. The Tar Heels allowed Fairfield and Wofford to hang around before pulling away in the final 10 minutes of those games. Then came the one at Northern Iowa.

Now, Northern Iowa has a good thing going. This is a program that won 31 games last season. But this is a team that returned just three starters from last season. In other words: the No. 1-ranked team in the country, which UNC was, should not be losing games at Northern Iowa.

But it happened. UNC went cold from the outside – 5-for-18 on 3s – while Northern Iowa made 11 3-pointers. The Tar Heels after building that 16-point lead early in the second half eased up off the accelerator, let Northern Iowa back into it, it built momentum and, next thing you know, it’s a 71-67 UNC loss.

The good news for UNC: It’s November. And it’s not exactly like UNC was at full strength, with Marcus Paige watching from the bench while he continues to recover from that broken bone in his right hand. The Northern Iowa loss will be forgotten – maybe forgiven is the better word – if come March the Tar Heels are clicking and playing up to their potential.

But if UNC doesn’t reach its potential, and if closing out games continues to be an issue, then the trip to Northern Iowa will be remembered as the first clear sign that this team was headed for trouble. Now, though, UNC has a chance to show some mettle when it begins play on Monday night in the Hall of Fame Classic against Northwestern.

Some quick things to watch before I head over to the Sprint Center in a bit:

Can UNC play a complete game?

Through four games it really hasn’t happened yet. It took a while for UNC to get going against Temple, and the victories against Fairfield and Wofford were competitive through the first 30 minutes or so. Is this the game, in game No. 5, when UNC comes out and has it together from the start – and then keeps it together?

Kennedy Meeks’ consistency

Meeks got off to a great start against Northern Iowa but his production declined considerably as the game wore on. That’s not a positive development for a guy whose consistency, or lack of it, has been maddening for coach Roy Williams.

Justin Jackson playing with confidence

At least he should be, after breaking out of a mini-slump and scoring 25 points in the loss on Saturday. Jackson is the reason why that defeat wasn’t even worse for the Tar Heels. His emergence was among the biggest positives in an otherwise difficult trip.

The Chris Collins connection

The former Duke player and assistant coach is now in his third season as the head coach at Northwestern and he has the Wildcats trending up. They won 14 games in his first season and 15 games last season. Last year Northwestern won five of its final seven games in the Big Ten, so don’t expect this game to be a pushover for UNC. The Tar Heels will be tested on the inside by the 7-foot Alex Olah.

See you at the Sprint Center. And, P.S.: Highly recommend the Baby Back Lunch at Jack Stack. … To the treadmill.