By Adam Lucas
Now, here we are again. Kennedy Meeks is out with a bruised knee for “at least two weeks.” First, make sure you understand the injury—Meeks doesn’t just have a bruised knee, like you or I would get when we hit the side of the bed while stumbling to the bathroom in the middle of the night. It’s a bone bruise, which is a more significant and troubling injury. It also has the potential to linger more than Paige’s hand. This is something Meeks and the Carolina training staff will have to watch closely.
Meeks’ knee affects the exact part of his game Roy Williams talks about the most—explosiveness—so the Tar Heels will want it to be completely healed before they try to bring him back. Some quick thoughts on the ramifications of Meeks’ injury and its timing:
1. It definitely means more playing time for Isaiah Hicks.
It’s interesting timing for Hicks, who was Carolina’s most aggressive offensive player at Texas. He shot ten free throws in just 23 minutes of playing time (making eight), tied for the most any Tar Heel has attempted in any contest this year and more than half the number Hicks had attempted the entire rest of the season. Even with big Cameron Ridley in the middle, Hicks never hesitated about attacking the rim. The Oxford native has looked much more confident on offense as a junior.
That’s the good news. The bad news is rebounding hurt the Tar Heels against the Longhorns, and Hicks didn’t have a board until the final minutes of the game, finishing with just three. It’s not as if Hicks doesn’t know how to rebound; he once grabbed 30 boards in a state title game in high school. Meeks’ absence is an opportunity for Hicks to continue his evolution and become a more well-rounded contributor.
2. Carolina is vulnerable defensively in the post.
Meeks is quietly Carolina’s best post defender. He’s strong enough to ward off even big men like Ridley, and he’s smart enough to know where to go and how to play. Carolina’s other two primary posts, Brice Johnson and Hicks, simply aren’t quite as good as Meeks defensively right now.
Enter Joel James. He has the size and mentality to be a good defender. At this point in his career, it’s fair to say he’s probably not going to be a huge scorer. But if he can give the Tar Heels some good defensive minutes in Meeks’ absence, he will be making an important contribution.
3. Someone has to rebound.
Meeks corralled a team-high six rebounds at Texas and has led or tied for the team rebounding lead in Carolina’s last three games. That rebounding, followed by his solid ability to throw an outlet pass, is key to igniting the UNC transition game.
The Tar Heels have other capable rebounders, as Brice Johnson’s 10 boards against a physical Kansas State team suggest. But to this point in the season, no one has been as consistently committed to rebounding as Meeks. That will have to change in the next couple of weeks.
4. Roy Williams might toy with playing smaller lineups.
He’s been known to do it before, as with the 2012-13 team. This is a different situation, because it’s not a roster deficiency causing the possible lineup shuffle, but a hopefully temporary injury situation. Still, Williams was frustrated with Carolina’s lack of success on the boards in Austin and might feel he wouldn’t be losing that much by at least trying a smaller lineup at times.
“We could shift Justin Jackson down and play him at the four and go smaller,” the head coach said on his radio show Monday night.
While Williams’ preference for a post-oriented offense is likely to prevent him from completely junking any attempt to get the ball inside, it wouldn’t be surprising to at least give a smaller lineup a few minutes on Wednesday night against Tulane just to see how it clicks.
5. The timing is a little concerning.
Paige’s injury was never going to leak into Atlantic Coast Conference play. There’s a chance Meeks’ could, which would have an impact on Carolina’s NCAA Tournament resume. The Tar Heels have eliminated some of any seeding cushion they might have had with a couple of non-conference losses. Losses to teams like—for example—Clemson and Georgia Tech, the first two ACC foes on the schedule—would be dangerous both for regular season title purposes and for seeding.
Winning the regular season title in a conference as difficult as the ACC will matter. The Tar Heels need a full roster to begin to make that push on Dec. 30, and they don’t need to drop any head-shakers that look painful in hindsight in March. Clemson will get most of the attention, but Georgia Tech is looming and the Yellow Jackets currently rank fifth in the country in offensive rebounding percentage.
The best news about the timing is that it falls during Christmas break, when Carolina will have a full week off from Dec. 21-28. That’s valuable rest time for Meeks.