This season, defense was not exactly the calling card for the Tar Heels. They struggled to find a rhythm during the regular season, and never had a lock-down defensive stopper that previous UNC teams had. Many times it felt as though the coaching staff tried so many different lineup combinations for the sole purpose of finding an answer for their defensive troubles.
However, there was one player that stood tall every time the Heels took the court.
Kennedy Meeks was a source of consistency and production for every single game. That may seem like an obvious answer after his heroic performance in the National Championship game, but that would be unfair to Meeks’ entire season of work.
In 973 minutes this season, his defensive rating was 92.3. This is a formula that determines how many points a player would allow per 100 possessions. If that seems high, then understand that the only player on the team with a better defensive rating was....Aaron Rohlman.
The next best starter was Isaiah Hicks, who had a DRtg of 98.9. That is not a small gap. The great perimeter defensive duo of Theo Pinson and Kenny Williams, who played a combined 1117 minutes, had DRtgs of 99.1 and 100.7. While it’s not unusual for post-players to have better DRtgs, especially in the UNC system, Kennedy Meeks’ defensive performance simply dwarfs everyone else.
If that “advanced metric” isn’t enough to convince you, consider that as a post player, Meeks was third on the team with 38 steals, trailing Joel Berry and Nate Britt.
He had 225 defensive rebounds. That’s 84 more than Hicks.
Meeks also blocked 47 shots. While that’s not overwhelming, it was still first on the team. It’s even more impressive when you consider that Hicks and Tony Bradley combined for only 51 total blocks while playing a total of 1,460 minutes.
If numbers aren’t enough for you, then think about this. At what point during the season did the Tar Heels get overrun in the post? What post player had an absolutely dominating performance or memorably carried his team to victory? How many times did you yell in disgust because the Heels didn’t have a defensive answer for opposing big men?
John Collins from Wake Forest had six points and three rebounds, even with Meeks losing his backup, Tony Bradley, to a concussion in the first half.
Louisville’s starting front line of Mangok Mathiang, Deng Adel, and Jaylen Johnson were a combined 19 and 10.
Kentucky’s Bam Adebayo tallied 13 and 7 in both contests between the two teams. Those were right in line with his season averages. Not exactly eye-opening, and not unexpected for a likely NBA lottery pick.
Florida State’s Jonathan Isaac did have 17 and 12, but Kennedy only played 13 minutes.
Against Notre Dame, Meeks only played 16 minutes and Fighting Irish center V.J. Beachem dropped 20 points.
Maybe Jayson Tatum’s performances come to mind, but Tatum is arguably a matchup nightmare for anyone. Besides, as Duke’s stretch-four, he was never really Meeks’ defensive assignment.
However, Amile Jefferson was. Jefferson’s numbers through three games against UNC? 22 points and 16 rebounds. Total. Thats just over seven and five a game, well below Jefferson’s averages of 10.9 points and 8.4 rebounds per game.
Sure, Jordan Bell had 13 and 16 in the national semifinals, but considering Meeks’ 25 and 14 performance, maybe we can call that one even? Or remember that Meeks also had three steals? Or that he helped force Bell into four turnovers?
Then, of course, he shut down Przemek Karnwoski two nights later before he made the play of his career when he blocked Williams-Goss’ final shot in the paint.
Conversely, how many times did a perimeter play absolutely burn North Carolina during the season? Malik Monk, Ky Bowman, Kyle Guy, Josh Okogie, and Bruce Brown all torched UNC in various ways - and perimeter depth was expected to be a strength for the Heels heading into the season!
Whether you use stats or the eye test, Kennedy Meeks was the consistent defensive machine that showed up every night, ready to perform. Simply put, UNC wasn’t just a better squad with Kennedy Meeks on the court. They were a championship caliber team when he entered the game.
What more could we have asked for?