Kennedy Meeks Needs the Majority Of Minutes for UNC Down LowPosted by Lathan Wells on January 31st, 2014
Even with all the uncertainty swirling around the North Carolina roster through the first half of the season, the consensus among most was that interior depth would not be a problem. And sure enough, Williams has shown that he will play his surplus of big bodies in nearly every game. Each Tar Heel post player has a unique skill set that lends itself to different moments and match-ups, but the center position has been an area that UNC has not been able to count on for consistent production. Recent ACC wins against Boston College, Clemson and Georgia Tech have indicated, perhaps, that this may be a concern of the past.
One reason for the up-and-down production over the course of the year can be tied to the fact that the individual manning the post at the opening tip-off has not gotten starter’s minutes. Sophomore Joel James started the first 10 games of the year before getting injured versus Texas, and he’s started two games since, averaging just shy of 11 minutes per game. James started all three games against Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky, and yet played fewer minutes than Kennedy Meeks versus the Cardinals (11 minutes to 24) and Spartans (16 to 18), and fewer than both Brice Johnson and Meeks in the victory over Kentucky (13 minutes compared to Johnson’s 24 and Meeks’ 19). Surely Williams saw something in James to name him the starter for those contests, but if he was going to play so sparingly, why not let someone else man the post to get in an early rhythm?
Johnson got his shot while James was out with his injured MCL, starting the first two games in his stead against Davidson and Northern Kentucky. But his foul trouble and general defensive deficiencies clearly demonstrated he’s a better instant offensive option off the bench than he is as a tone-setter. That left the freshman Meeks as the next viable option to start; unfortunately for Williams, he was hitting the proverbial “freshman wall” just as he earned starts against UNC-Wilmington and Wake Forest (seven points total between the two games). James was then reinserted to the starting unit versus Miami and Syracuse, ultimately playing a total of 18 minutes between the two games.
After Jackson Simmons earned the start against Boston College, it was clear Williams was sending his post men a message. And while James once again started the next contest versus Virginia, he played only 12 minutes — Meeks, meanwhile, came off the bench for 21 minutes and scored 15 points. He was then anointed the starter in the blowout victory over Clemson, perhaps the best offensive game Carolina has had all year. Not surprisingly, that offensive performance coincided with the starting center logging 26 minutes, the highest total the starting five had earned all season. That trend continued in a road win over Georgia Tech on Wednesday night, when Meeks again logged 26 minutes and performed admirably while facing off against a much taller foe in the Yellow Jackets’ Daniel Miller. While Meeks only scored nine points, it was a very efficient outing in that he went 4-of-4 from the field to go along with his 10 rebounds.
It’s clear at this stage of the year that UNC has its lineup set, finally settling on the right person to man the middle. Perhaps it was Meeks’ conditioning that kept him from the lineup earlier, or maybe it was simply that he’s a freshman and Williams prefers upperclassmen to start. As the season has progressed, it’s clear that James and reserve Desmond Hubert contribute little more than rebounding and big bodies, and Johnson’s offensive outbursts don’t outweigh his defensive shortcomings. But with his unique passing ability, efficient scoring and more than adequate rebounding and defensive effort for an undersized player, Meeks has to be the guy for the Tar Heels down low. That doesn’t just mean having his name called with the starting unit, but also playing starter’s minutes throughout the remaining games to help the Carolina lineup stay consistent and cohesive.