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UNC basketball: The case for honoring Kennedy Meeks’ jersey

The senior center should go up in the rafters with his teammates

NCAA Basketball: Final Four Championship Game-Gonzaga vs North Carolina Chris Steppig-USA TODAY Sports

Tyler Hansbrough. Sam Perkins. George Lynch. Billy Cunningham. Brice Johnson. Antwan Jamison. Mitch Kupchak. Brad Daugherty. Kennedy Meeks.

All these former UNC players have one thing in common: In their college careers, each amassed over 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. The first eight players on that list have their jerseys hanging from the rafters of the Dean Smith Center. The ninth, Meeks, deserves to join them after powering the team to a national title.

As of this writing, there is just one way for Meeks’ jersey to be honored. As a reminder, the five ways that a Tar Heel can earn this honor are:

  1. ACC Player of the Year
  2. NCAA Tournament Final Four Most Outstanding Player
  3. Consensus 1st or 2nd Team All-American
  4. Olympic Gold Medalist
  5. MVP of a National Championship-winning team, as voted by teammates and coaches

Meeks’ teammates Justin Jackson and Joel Berry won the first two awards this past year, and Meeks, while he had an excellent year, was not All-American good, so those requirements would not be available to him. The Olympic Gold Medalist rule is a holdover from the era when professionals could not play in the Olympics and is therefore probably inaccessible to Meeks as well. Because North Carolina won the 2017 National Championship, however, the team-voted MVP will also go to the rafters. I believe that Meeks has a legitimate argument for being a team MVP.

A little bit of background on the award is in order. There are two players in the rafters right now who are there only due to being voted Championship Team MVP: George Lynch and Raymond Felton. There is, therefore, precedence for a player being honored despite a relative lack of national attention. Additionally, both of Roy Williams’ previous championship teams had co-MVPs: in 2005, Felton shared the honor with Sean May, and in 2009, Tyler Hansbrough and Ty Lawson were voted co-MVPs. Further, in both of these cases, a perimeter player shared the award with a post player. It’s not a stretch to imagine this may happen again for the 2017 team.

There are two primary points to the argument for Meeks, in my opinion. The first is that he may have deserved the honor already. After a career-best performance against Oregon where he recorded 25 points and 17 rebounds including the game-saving rebound off a missed UNC free throw, Meeks seemed to be in the driver’s seat for Final Four MOP if Carolina were to win the championship. Meeks had a relatively quiet 7 points and 10 rebounds in the final. He also, of course, all but sealed the game with the block shown in the title image of this article with less than two minutes left.

The thing is, though, Final Four MOP voting is apparently due a couple of minutes before the title game ends. This meant that voters were not able to take into account Meeks’ late-game heroics. Saving two games in a row is almost certainly grounds for a Most Outstanding Player nod, but because voters only had evidence of a lackluster offensive game while Joel Berry kept the team afloat on two bad ankles, Berry was understandably voted Most Outstanding Player.

If the votes were recast knowing how the game ended, I believe that a significant number of them may have been changed to Meeks. He made the plays that won his team the title. The team MVP award is a way for UNC to make sure that contribution, among his many others, isn’t forgotten.

The second point to my argument is that Kennedy Meeks genuinely deserves to be recognized as one of the team’s two most valuable players. Justin Jackson has gotten most of the attention, and it’s been deserved. His improvement from previous years to this year, especially in the three-point shooting department, turned him from a solid college starter to one of the best players in the country. His relentless offseason work was well-documented and the results were clear. This season, Jackson went from a fringe NBA second-round prospect into consideration for the first-round lottery range. He was UNC’s best and most consistent perimeter player and nobody would argue about how vital he was to his team’s tournament run.

But it’s fallacious to conflate professional prospects and talent with importance to the team. Meeks may not be drafted to the NBA and may not have the varied skill set that Jackson does, but he was every bit as vital to UNC’s championship. First of all, Roy Williams’ system demands a dominant post player to succeed: May, Hansbrough, and Brice Johnson had anchored Tar Heel teams that went to the National Championship game before Meeks. All of them were among the best rebounders in the country.

This season, even more than in years past, Carolina’s biggest asset on its way to a national title was its rebounding prowess, and Meeks was the team’s best rebounder on the defensive end and one of its two best offensive rebounders to boot. His strength on the boards gave UNC an elite aspect to its game, which was necessary in order to win a title.

Jackson’s shooting was great, but this wasn’t an elite shooting team and in fact shot pretty poorly during the tournament. Rebounding was what allowed them to compensate, and nobody was a better rebounder than Meeks. He, more than anybody else, gave UNC the tools it needed to win, and for that reason, I believe that he deserves at least a share of the team’s MVP award.

After all, it’d be a shame to let 1000 points and 1000 rebounds go forgotten. His game wasn’t always pretty, but it was effective, and at no time was it more so than when UNC needed it most.