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UNC basketball: Kennedy Meeks is crucial to a deep tournament run

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Kennedy Meeks has been playing some of the best ball of his career lately. Combined with Isaiah Hicks, he presents a challenge that maybe no tournament team can overcome.

Florida State v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

North Carolina basketball has the ACC Player of the Year in Justin Jackson and one of the best point guards in the nation in Joel Berry II. They also have a versatile forward finally healthy and ready to make a name for himself (Theo Pinson). Coach Roy Williams is as experienced as it gets. However, senior big man Kennedy Meeks still might be the most important piece in Carolina returning to last season’s heights.

When the calendar turns to March, most good teams know exactly who they are. UNC does, too. They are a supreme rebounding team with a lot of balance on the offensive end. Meeks is right at the forefront of all of that.

Meeks’ numbers don’t pop out at you. Just 12.6 points and 9.1 rebounds on 54.4 percent shooting. Solid numbers, sure, but ones that suggest a guy who can propel a team to a Final Four appearance?

The fact that UNC is deep, and Williams especially likes to rotate his bigs, keeps Meeks from higher numbers. Stretched out to per-40 statistics, Meeks is averaging 21 points and 15.1 rebounds. He’s got the ability to be one of the best big men in the country; he just has to show it in spurts rather than dominating a whole game.

The offensive prowess of Meeks has developed, too, over his four years. He’s a career 55 percent shooter from the field, and he has a soft touch around the rim. Meeks has gotten much better at finishing around the rim. He clearly knows his spots on the floor and, importantly, he doesn’t get blocked in the paint as much as he used to.

Also, outside of a dynamic point guard like Berry, the UNC system relies on skilled big men who can rebound with the best of them. Meeks’ 9.1 rebounds may not look like unbelievably stellar, but he’s actually in the top 10 of offensive rebounding percentage in the country. His ability to corral UNC misses is crucial to how the team operates. Guys like Berry and Justin Jackson feel freer to shoot from deep, knowing that Meeks is down there with a great chance of getting another possession.

Meeks is also top 15 in total rebounding percentage in the nation, and that’s a testament to the work he does on both ends. While he can seem slow or awkward at times, he really is a solid team defender and it’s rare that a big man will destroy UNC. Carolina has struggled with playmakers like Malik Monk and Luke Kennard, but Meeks has been able to hold his own in the paint.

As mentioned briefly earlier, March is the time when teams really focus on what makes them great. UNC is a No. 1 seed, in part, because of their rebounding and total domination of the paint. When they’ve gone away from that, they can lose—ahem Duke in the ACC Tournament. This tournament, Williams has two big men seniors that should be ready to capitalize on all of the previous four years of hard work and determination.

Meeks has the talent and experience to dominate this tournament and, if given the chance to play more than 24 minutes a game, he really could. From here on out, every game could be his last. Meeks has been as steady as they come in Chapel Hill, but now could be the breakout stretch everyone has wanted. Truly, of all the top teams in contention, no team has a more experienced or capable man at the center spot. Time to watch Meeks do his thing for one final time in Carolina blue.