When UNC landed in Hawaii late last week, fans were salivating over the potential of this year’s team. Roy’s men would complete a 13 day, seven game gauntlet against a tournament field that included Georgetown, Oregon, Oklahoma State, and Wisconsin. How would the Tar Heels perform in what was expected to be their first major challenge of the 2016-17 season?
One week later UNC is leaving Hawaii as the 2016 Maui Invitational champions and fans are still waiting for UNC to face their first major challenge. The Tar Heels never trailed in Maui, and finished with an average margin of victory of 30 points, By performing in such a dominant fashion, the Heels provided a glimpse of just how scary they can be this season.
Here are three things we learned from Maui.
Kenny WIlliams Emerges
Theo Pinson’s injury left a void in the line-up. At the moment, it appears as though Kenny Williams is currently in the lead to replace Pinson. Williams started all three games after he and Nate Britt battled for the starting spot in the four games prior to the tournament. It’s hard to argue with the results.
Kenny Williams is simply a more natural fit at the position. Before the season started, Akil Guruparan and myself touched on that here and here. While Britt has had some solid stat-lines, it’s been obvious that the flow of the game suffers when he and Berry are on the court together. As a more traditional PG, he makes an awkward combination with Joel Berry in the backcourt.
Adrian Atkinson crunched some early seasons numbers here, which support this. (This did not include last night’s game). The crux of his argument is that with Kenny Williams on the floor, UNC scores 14 more points per 100 possessions than they have with Britt. Defensively, they allow 22 fewer points per 100 possessions. Essentially, with Williams on the court, UNC was “better” by approximately 36 points per 100 possessions.
Admittedly, the season is still young and the sample size is small. Britt is an integral part of this team. Williams will experience peaks and valleys as he develops. However, if he continues to influence the game at these levels, UNC should terrorize opponents when Pinson returns.
As noted, Pinson’s injury opened the door for more playing time. During the first four games, this included increased chances for Brandon Robinson and Seventh Woods. However, as the competition level increased, the minutes decreased for those two freshmen.
Woods and Robinson both reached double digits minutes in the first five games. Woods peaked at including 17 minutes against Chaminade and Long Beach State. Robinson reached 21 minutes against Long Beach State. They were not dominant, but they had been solid contributors with flashes of potential.
Against Oklahoma State and Wisconsin, both saw a decline in their playing time. Robinson was on the court for 9 minutes against OSU, and only 7 minutes against Wisconsin. Likewise, Woods received 7 minutes against OSU and 6 minutes against Wisconsin. Considering neither one of those victories were in jeopardy of being truly contested, this was surprising.
This development will be fun to watch. Maybe it means something. Maybe it means nothing. For what it’s worth, Tony Bradley maintained a steady diet of 19, 18, and 16 minutes throughout the tournament.
Meeks Makes the Leap?
Kennedy Meeks staked his claim to be the most dominate UNC post player this season. In Maui he averaged 15 points and 11.3 rebounds. Had it not been for Joel Berry’s shooting prowess, Meeks would have walked away with the tournament MVP. On the season Meeks is averaging 13.5 points and 9.8 rebounds.
Hicks may be the better scorer - 16.3 ppg in Maui, 14.7 ppg for the year. Bradley may, deservedly, receive attention for his efficiency and potential. However, they haven’t matched the productivity and consistency of Kennedy Meeks. This includes success on the defensive end.
Entering the title game, Meeks had a defensive rating of 83.2 (points allowed per 100 possessions). Meanwhile, Bradley and Hicks clock in at 92..5 and 92.6. That’s a signifant gap. If you don’t like those numbers, then just think back to the first 8 minutes against Wisconsin. Meeks created a forcefield around the rim with a variety of blocks, rebounds, and shot-altering efforts.
Fans get frustrated because of what they wish Kennedy would be, instead of appreciating everything he is. Meeks is not flashy or explosive, but he may be the most important post-player for UNC.
He just wants to win, and help contribute whenever he can. If Meeks can stay healthy (a very valid concern), then he may finally develop into the player that all of us have waited four years to see.