By Adam Lucas
Roy Williams whistled practice to a halt earlier this preseason with a frank question for his team.
“Do you see Brice out here?” he asked the 2016-17 Tar Heels.
The answer, of course, was that Carolina’s first consensus first-team All-America since 2009 was not on the floor. Gone are his 61 percent shooting from the field. Gone are his 17 points per game and his 59 blocks and his infectious enthusiasm and ability to take over a game.
“No!” Williams barked at his team. “He’s not out here! And he’s not coming back!”
Plenty of attention has been paid to the hole Johnson’s departure leaves in the middle of Carolina’s offense. But what sneakily might be even more important is the void left by the departure of his rebounding prowess. Johnson posted a 28.5 percent defensive rebounding rate last year, one of the 15 best figures in the country.
Williams prides himself on his team’s rebounding ability, but through an exhibition game and Friday night’s season opener against Tulane, the Tar Heels have given up too many offensive rebounds. The Green Wave picked off eighteen of them, giving them an offensive rebounding percentage of nearly 40 percent, well above the 29.9 percent Carolina allowed last year.
Enter Kennedy Meeks. It’s true that Justin Jackson and Joel Berry were terrific offensively in New Orleans, but it’s also true that if you had to pick only one aspect of the 95-75 win that absolutely must continue in order for the Tar Heels to succeed this year, it would probably be Meeks’ rebounding, especially in the second half.
Let’s be honest: Meeks is not a cool player. He plays below the rim (and sometimes into the rim, as he did on an errant follow shot against Tulane). He doesn’t get much lift. Perhaps his best offensive play of the game was a prototypical old man move, when he used a textbook seal on his defender to clear a path for a sweet Seventh Woods assist to his free hand.
But while it wasn’t especially pretty, he also found his way into a career-high 15 rebounds in the season opener. Other players on the roster can score more effectively and more fluidly. Other players on the roster run the floor more gracefully. But the one area of the game where Meeks has the potential to be better than anyone else on the team is on the glass.
Roy Williams was so thrilled with the 15-board performance that this was what he said:
“The problem is he had seven offensive rebounds and five of them were after he missed his first shot,” the head coach said. “That helps your rebounding totals but kills your field goal percentage…I’m not real positive when a guy goes 4-for-13. I want him to get the ball and shoot it quicker rather than holding it so long and drawing a crowd. In the second half on the defensive backboards he did a really nice job. He came up with some loose balls and got one he chased down all the way in the corner. I was not pleased with what he did offensively.”
Keep in mind this comes after a game when Meeks set his career high in rebounding and the Tar Heels won by 20 points. Here we have the story of Meeks’ tenure at Carolina. Great job getting those 15 rebounds, Kennedy! Yes, but…
That type of criticism has stung Meeks at times in the past, but he says he’s more comfortable with it as a senior.
“Coach is a loving person,” Meeks says. “He will always tell you what he expects out of you or what is best for you, but he gives you the responsibility to make those decisions after he gives his opinions. He will always be straightforward. As a freshman and sophomore, you always think he is ragging on you. But he really cares about you. I can honestly say our relationship has grown.”
Meeks has had back-to-back double-figure rebounding games just four times in his previous three years. Of course, prior to last year Johnson had done it only twice in his previous three years.
Johnson, as we have established, will not be on the court this year. But—and you can love him, hate him, think he should play less, think he should play more, it doesn’t really matter—Meeks will play a lot of minutes this year. On Friday night, exactly what that means for the Tar Heels received an encouraging debut in Meeks' most important category.