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UNC Post Player Preview Part 2: The Kennedy and Isaiah Show

Kennedy and Isaiah possess the talent and experience to pick-up where Brice Johnson left off.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Florida Gulf Coast vs North Carolina Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Four years ago Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks stepped foot in Chapel Hill, touted as the next great UNC frontcourt duo. The last three seasons have been filled with obstacles for both players, but this season they finally are ready to join forces in the paint. Hicks’ explosiveness and Meeks’ soft hands and passing ability should provide one of the most savvy, experienced, talented 1-2 punches in the country.

Together with sophomore Luke Maye and freshman Tony Bradley, the overall talent of UNC’s big men rivals any squad in the nation. On Monday. we took an in-depth look at what Luke and Tony have to offer this season. Today, we wrap up our post player previews and set our sights on Kennedy and Isaiah.

Isaiah Hicks SR, 6-9, 242

2013-14: 34 games, 7.3mpg, 1.2ppg, 1.0rpg, 45.2% FG, 57.9% FT
2014-15: 38 games, 14.8mpg, 6.6ppg, 3.0rpg, 54.7% FG, 62.1% FT
2015-16: 40 games, 18.1mpg, 8.9ppg, 4.6rpg, 61.4% FG, 75.6% FT

What to Expect: After toiling on the bench for three years, Isaiah Hicks is finally ready to step into a starting role alongside fellow senior Kennedy Meeks. Surprisingly, though Kennedy has started for the previous two seasons, most fans and analysts expect/hope Hicks to have the better season. Much of that hype is not without merit.

Each season has seen an increase in minutes, points, rebounds, shooting percentage, and free throw percentage. Last season’s efforts culminated in the ACC Sixth Man of the Year award. Using the “advanced” statistic of points/rebounds per 40 minutes, Hicks theoretically would have averaged 19.8 points and 10.2 rebounds per game had he played 40 minutes per game. That compares favorably to Brice Johnson’s 20.9 points and 12.4 rebounds per 40 minutes in Brice’s junior season. Needless to say, fans are optimistic that Hicks will be able to make a giant leap much like Brice Johnson did last season.

While Brice-like numbers are likely a bridge too far, there is certainly no reason to expect another increase in production from the Oxford, NC native. Standing at 6-9 and 242 pounds, Hicks is stronger and more explosive than Brice Johnson was. Hicks has also demonstrated a more consistent and powerful “motor” compared to any UNC post player of the past 5 seasons. It was that consistent output of overhyper energy that led to Hicks’ preposterous foul rate that has been mentioned at every possible moment this off-season.

Now, as an undisputed starter in UNC’s offense, Hicks will have to harness that energy. It takes a certain mentality and focus to come off the bench in short bursts three or four times a game, for 4-6 minutes at a time. Hicks’ athleticism allowed him to fill that role perfectly. It was the perfect complement to Johnson’s length or Meeks’ passing ability from the high post.

It requires a slightly different mindset to spread that effort across 25-28 minutes a game, sometimes for 10 minutes at a time. That ability to remain consistent carries even more importance this season, as UNC’s front court is lacking the overall experience and depth compared to last year. Admittedly, I do have concerns about Hicks’ consistency throughout the season, specifically when conference play begins.

It would not surprise me to see him struggle early in January as he adjusts to a (slightly) tougher slate of opponents, where his pure athleticism won’t let him overpower opponents. The past few seasons his court awareness, improving basketball IQ, and enjoyment in dunking the basketball have gained increasing amounts of respect.

However, he has never been the most polished post player, lacking a deep repertoire of post moves that can keep a defense off balance. He doesn’t have the Zeller/Henson hook shot, the Sean May double pump, or the lightning quick baseline spin move utilized by UNC legend Antawn Jamison. If he has rectified that this summer and developed a consistent go-to move on the block, a 1st-Team All-ACC season is within reach.

***I acknowledge I could be completely off base. Hicks may take the college basketball world by storm. If that’s the case, I reserve the right to blame this line of thinking on the massive amounts of Halloween candy I ate while writing this.***

Kennedy Meeks SR, 6-10, 260

2013-14: 34 games, 16.3mpg, 7.6ppg, 6.1rpg, 54.8% FG, 58.6% FT
2014-15: 37 games, 23.3mpg, 11.4ppg, 7.3rpg, 56.4% FG, 64.1% FT
2015-16: 33 games, 20.6mpg, 9.1ppg, 5.9rpg, 54.8% FG, 68.9% FT

What to expect: Entering his third year as a fixture in Roy’s line-up, Kennedy Meeks is primed and ready for a break out season. As I wrote in August, last season was supposed to be Meeks’ coming out party. That didn’t happen. This year, Meeks has seemed to be an afterthought as all the publicity has shined on Hicks, Joel Berry, and Justin Jackson. That’s unfortunate, and I pity whoever sleeps on Kennedy Meeks.

Though Meeks is expected to start at the 5 position, he can play both post positions. Some may be surprised to see that Meeks is one inch taller, and 20 pounds heavier than Hicks. His ability to see over a high post defender to deliver an entry pass to the block and his uncanny knack for starting fast breaks with glorious outlet passes makes Meeks the perfect trail man in UNC’s offense.

His ability to knock down the 15 foot jump shot also helps prevent the defense from sinking into the paint and crowding the lane. With the opponent forced to step out to the free throw line (or further), UNC’s guards have room to slash through the paint. Whichever other post player is in the game doesn’t have to worry about getting double teamed, and has plenty of space to battle for position. It can be argued that Meeks may have just as much versatility for a big man, as Theo Pinson does for a guard/forward.

Additionally, most any UNC fan will agree that Meeks’ ability to produce relies on his health. Notorious for an, um, naturally “less sleek” physique, any small amount of time he is forced to miss with injury tends to wreak havoc on his body, specifically his aerobic conditioning. Last season a possibly more-significant-than-announced bone bruise derailed his non-conference season. By the time he finally returned, Johnson’s All-American candidacy was in the early stages of it’s season-long campaign.

Just how good is Kennedy Meeks when fully healthy? Using the same 40 minute metric we used for Hicks, the results should cause even the most casual UNC fan to take notice.

2013-2014: 18.6 ppg, 14.1rpg
2014-2015: 19.5ppg, 12.6 rpg
2015-2016: 17.9ppg, 11.5 rpg

Essentially, the difference in Kennedy’s 40 minute projections compared to Isaiah’s are 1 rebound and 2 points. More succinctly, 1 possession. One single possession per 40 minutes was the difference in Hicks’ and Meeks’ production last season. That’s one possession that Hicks may never get to play if he’s sitting on the bench with four fouls. Clearly, Kennedy Meeks’ problems have NOT been about production when on the court. His problem has simply been staying on the court.

That does not factor in Meeks’ defensive ability, which was second best on the team last season. Kennedy ended the season with a defensive rating of 96.9, which is a stat that estimates the points a player’s team allows per 100 possessions while that player is on the court. Hicks’ defensive rating was 100.4. In other words, Meeks was 3.5 points better on defense, per 100 possessions. Think those 3.5 points make a difference in Chapel Hill against Duke? Or maybe in Houston, against....oh never mind.

Perhaps most impressively, Meeks continued this production without any discernible post move. Much like Hicks, the (in)ability to play with his back to the basket has been a noticeable flaw in Meeks’ game. It is not that Meeks does not get position or does not have ample scoring opportunities. Historically, Kennedy just doesn’t convert as often as Hicks does.

The most noticeable improvement that can Meeks can make, is to, like Hicks, develop a go-to post move. Hicks can explode through a defender’s body, draw contact and get to the line. His 152 FT attempts last season, compared to 61 for Meeks validates that. However, Meeks either cannot or has not displayed that capability. As such, a post move or two would be a welcome sight so he gain a little space to maneuver and finish around the rim. Otherwise, another season of altered shots and missed bunny lay-ups at the rim await.

If Kennedy would keep the ball above his waist, and not go M.I.A. for long stretches, that would be greatly appreciated as well.

Heading into the 2016-17 season, UNC is in an enviable position. Hicks, the 2015-16 ACC Sixth Man Award winner is their starting center. Meeks, a two year-starter who can score, rebound, pass, and defend is their starting power forward. Tony Bradley, a top-20 freshman is their back-up. Luke Maye, a potential stretch 4 shooting power forward brings critical game experience from last season.

There are plenty of questions and concerns. But, isn’t that the case every season? All biases aside, I’m not sure there is another front court in the country that has this much proven experience AND potential for growth as UNC’s. That’s a scary combination for opponents to contemplate. I’m just glad I get to sit back and enjoy it.