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North Carolina big men shine in Tar Heels’ tournament opener

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UNC’s big men are going to be important to watch as they had one of their most equally-productive games yet

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-North Carolina vs Texas Southern Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

In the NCAA Tournament, it’s not hard to take the little things that teams do correctly for granted. More specifically, it’s easy to overlook things that higher seeded teams not only do correctly, but do correctly in such an outstanding way that if consistency holds throughout the team’s tournament run they become very difficult to beat. Enter North Carolina’s big men.

Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, Tony Bradley, and Luke Maye did something that is the epitome of everything Roy Williams preaches as a head coach. Even more impressive is that all of these players mentioned played no more than 19 minutes. Not enough of a surprise for you? None of the players that played 19 minutes were starters. Need more? None of the starters got into foul trouble. Need one more? The smallest big man of the four, who also came off the bench, had the most rebounds. Let’s take a look at the numbers:

Kennedy Meeks: 3-4 FG, 13 pts, 6 reb, 1 stl, 2 blks, 0 fls in 17 min

Isaiah Hicks: 8-12FG, 17pts, 6 reb, 1 blk, 2 fls in 17 min

Tony Bradley: 6-8 FG, 12 pts, 6 reb, 1 ast, 1fl in 19 min

Luke Maye: 4-11 FG, 10 pts, 9 reb, 1 ast, 1 blk, 1 fl in 19 min

To sum it up: all four of these big men big men scored in double digit points, had 27 rebounds total, and no more than two fouls per player. We should also take a moment to acknowledge that Isaiah Hicks only had two fouls the entire game. Two fouls. The. Entire. Game. This is everything that Roy Williams wants to see out of his big men entering the NCAA Tournament in order to keep any hopes of getting back to the National Championship alive.

Tony Bradley and Luke Maye are giving big time production off the bench, which helps prevent lapses in production when Meeks and Hicks are out of the game. Perhaps we would all expect this production from Bradley, but Maye being able to clean the boards at the level he’s doing it at serves as a huge plus.

With all of that said, it’s fair that we take a look at the reality of the situation against Texas Southern: they were severely undersized compared to North Carolina. Their starting line-up started four guards, Marvin Jones was their tallest player at 7’1 and their second tallest player was Stephan Bennett 6’10 coming off the bench. These two players easily match up with the size of UNC, but aside from them it was a complete mismatch.

However, when it comes to tournament play you play against who you play against. The stakes are always high and nothing is ever easy. Take one team for granted and you are going home. This is the time of the year where it is imperative to utilize your strengths to the best of your ability and maintain identity. In this game, UNC’s strengths shined as bright as any other time during the season. Basketball is also a game of rhythm and momentum: it is just as important that Meeks, Hicks, Bradley, and Maye get confidence and rhythm going in the paint as it is for perimeter shooters to get a rhythm shooting outside of the paint.

Perhaps the strongest case as to why this was such a wonderful thing to see: everyone knows that this wasn’t even Meeks’ or Hicks’ best games. Both of these players are able to drop double-doubles on teams on any given night, and even more so capable of dropping 20+ points in a game.

It can be argued that had either one of them played longer in the game, they easily could have done one of or even both of these things. This is where North Carolina’s depth is starting to shine. As mentioned before, Bradley and Maye are more than capable of producing off the bench. Bradley specifically has been averaging 7.5 ppg and 5.2 rpg in an average of 15.2 minutes. Luke Maye has played solid minutes himself this year, averaging 5.1 ppg, 3.8 reb in an average of 14 min.

North Carolina’s production from their big men has been a constant focal point of a Roy Williams team. The most obvious reason is that for perimeter players, the ball doesn’t always go in the basket for either UNC or the opposing team. At this time of year, on this stage, and with this much on the line, it is more important than ever for UNC to make sure to find some form of consistency in production from the big men.

The competition will get harder, the opposing players will get bigger, and yes, Isaiah Hicks will get into more foul trouble (but for fun, let’s pretend it’ll never happen again), but hopefully with this start to the tournament confidence and momentum carries over from one game to the next. If so, we’re looking at a team that is going to be really tough to beat.