For the past several years, regardless of success level, UNC has had a tradition of having starters whom a vocal minority of fans believe should be sitting for their backup, or a backup at a similar position. In 2012, it was Dexter Strickland. In 2013, it was James Michael McAdoo. In 2014, it was Brice Johnson. In 2015, it was Kennedy Meeks. In 2016, it’s early, but judging by online reactions to the season so far, it looks like it’s shaping up to be Meeks again, although he has been nothing but excellent in the first two months of the Heels’ season.
After an effort against Kentucky that was solid (and certainly better than many expected given the Wildcats’ athleticism) yet overshadowed by the explosion of Justin Jackson and the emphatic return of Joel Berry, Meeks turned in an extremely impressive effort against the Northern Iowa Panthers. His 18 points and 8 rebounds, both game-highs, paced the team to a blowout.
Meeks is at his best when he can overpower the opposition and get really deep post position, often working from positions that a lot of other big men find uncomfortable and making unorthodox shots look routine. Additionally, he feasts on the offensive glass, ranking 12th in the nation with an ORB% of 16.9, and is able to get a lot of points on tip-ins due to his 7’0’’ wingspan (according to DraftExpress). This year, due to his continued conditioning (like you haven’t heard that enough), he has been able to play longer minutes, and he’s also added a pretty quick second jump to his rebounding arsenal.
I say all this, which is obviously known albeit sometimes forgotten, because it was all on prominent display against UNI. The Panthers’ big men have struggled this year, and while both Heels starters have struggled taking advantage of seemingly favorable matchups this year (cf. Davidson), both Hicks and Meeks made the most of their opportunity against UNI. Hicks still didn’t quite break out like we’ve been waiting for, but Meeks took over pretty effectively. Eighteen points might look more good than great, but in a slower-paced game where the lead only ballooned in the last five minutes, it was significant, to say the least.
Meeks’ defense was also crucial to the win. Meeks has quietly been a defensive star this season, amassing a Defensive Rating of 87.4 before the UNI game for best among UNC players with significant minutes. Against UNI, he helped hold UNI forward Klint Carlson to 4-12 shooting and 1-5 from 3 (he came in averaging 44%/36%), having previously struggled against stretch forwards. It was an all-around impressive performance to finish off the pre-Christmas part of the season.
- Isaiah Hicks, F (I won’t blame you if you have this video on repeat for a few hours)
- Justin Jackson, G/F
All stats courtesy of ESPN.com and sports-reference.com/cbb