On Wednesday, Duke and UNC renew college basketball's best rivalry (sorry, Syracuse, one game, good as it is doesn't qualify and can't touch beating the neighbors senseless). We'll be talking about it between now and then of course.
As you've probably noticed, and as we predicted after the Virginia game, UNC's season has gotten radically better lately. The Heels are on a five-game win streak and none of the wins have been close.
We don't think it's at all coincidental that the streak started when Kennedy Meeks entered the starting lineup. Though he's not physically capable of 40 minutes at UNC's preferred (very fast) pace, Meeks is as smart a big man as Carolina's had in awhile.
Don't get us wrong: the Tylers (Hansbrough and Zeller) were both very solid. Sean May was pretty sharp. But when you really stop and think about it, UNC's had tons of really skilled big guys but not really that many who were strikingly smart as basketball players. By smart we mean, in Bob McKillop's sense, sneaky. McKillop argues that basketball is deception and he's right. As many great big men as UNC has had, you can't really find one who's a master of deception. Better? Sure. Jumps higher/runs faster? Many. But a guy who's just smarter than your big man? Not so many. JR Reid? Eric Montross? Mitch Kupchak? James Worthy? Tom LaGarde? Sam Perkins? Brad Daugherty? Rasheed Wallace? A Wolfe to be named later?
Of that group, the smartest basketball players would have to include Perkins, Worthy, Daughtery and Wallace, and with the benefit of hindsight, Wallace, who was widely regarded as a flake in college, might have been the smartest big man UNC ever had. It was hard to spot at the time because he was much more famous for saying odd, provocative and at times very funny things.
We're certainly not arguing that they weren't really good, just that they weren't guys you expected to be multi-dimensional. Some were, but not in the way that Danny Ferry or Tim Duncan or Tom Gugliotta were. Dean Smith had a system and it worked brilliantly. It wasn't always designed for a big man to be versatile. Kupchaks and Reids and Hansbroughs have always been more valued.
Depends on the definition of smarter maybe, but you have to go back to Bobby Jones to find a big guy who was just superb with guile.
Well, Meeks is. Those who have played pickup basketball know you eventually run across some guy who just shouldn't be able to do what he does. He looks ridiculous, he can't jump, he can't run that fast..but then he just kills it. You can't block his shot because he's figured out a way to keep anyone from doing it. He knows where the ball is coming off and gets there and doesn't have to jump much for a rebound. And he knows who's likely to score and gets them the ball.
After a bit it sinks in that this guy really knows how to play.
That's Meeks. Currently he's still trying to get into reasonable basketball shape, but the guy has excellent skills. And when you get down to it, 6-9 and whatever he is now (he started the season listed at 290. Amile Jefferson is 6-9 and is listed at 210. Shoot, LeBron James is 6-9 and listed at 250) is a load.
Meeks is a game changer in a lot of ways and he's just going to get better. We'd love to have a better sense of how much of Brice Johnson's recent improvement is because Meeks is such an upgrade over Jo-el (Kryptonite pronuncation please) James. He's just basketball smart. We really like his game and his potential and wonder why it took so long for him to emerge. Among his more admirable talents: the guy has the best outlet pass this side of Kevin Love, who is an absolute master of the art.
Meeks is in the same zip code as Love.
He's just getting 16 mpg but he's averaging 7.4 ppg and 6.2 rpg.
We'd also be curious to see how many fouls he draws. A guy that size is tough to deal with.
UNC's starters, Marcus Paige excepted, have a fairly significant weakness, and that's foul shooting. Take him out and Leslie McDonald is the best at just 60%. McAdoo, who gets fouled plenty, is hitting 53%. Tokoto's just getting 46.3%. And Meeks? A weakness: just 57.6%.
Three point shooting is the most identified UNC weakness. Paige is managing 36.7%, and that would be higher if anyone could take the pressure off of him. McDonald's managing 30.9% which is still basically break on a trey. The rest are pretty bad though. Tokoto is at 28% while Kennedy and McAdoo haven't managed a single shot between them.
Needless to say, if you can control Paige from outside, and to a lesser extent McDonald, your odds go up sharply, especially if you are hitting some threes yourself.
Starters rebounding is almost dead even with Duke getting 24.5 and UNC 25.5.