By Adam Lucas
One of the most fun things about attending a Carolina Basketball game in the Smith Center these days is picking out the former Tar Heels in the crowd and reminiscing.
Thursday night, against Virginia Tech, there was Antawn Jamison. Man, nobody was quicker off the floor than Antawn. He could jump twice before anyone else jumped once.
In the same section was Phil Ford. You can’t possibly type his name without picturing him holding up four fingers and directing the Tar Heel offense.
Just a few seats down was Lennie Rosenbluth. OK, not a lot of video there, but those who saw him will tell you his one-handed push shot was one of the most dangerous shots in Carolina hoops history.
There’s Sean May. Over there is Eric Montross. I just saw Desmond Hubert. Each comes complete with their own set of memories and important games.
One day, not too far into the future because the games are getting short now, it will be Kennedy Meeks who wanders through that tunnel in street clothes. And he will be one about whom you will honestly, firmly, accurately be able to say, “I don’t think Carolina has ever had one like him.”
Well, can you name another? Meeks, a post player, scored 15 points and grabbed 14 rebounds (in just 21 minutes) in the win over Virginia Tech. Not a single one of his points came off an executed post move. He got five baskets off offensive rebounds, one on a great drive and dish by Joel Berry, and another (a dunk) when Virginia Tech elected to completely decline to defend him.
Seriously: can you imagine an opponent just ignoring Justin Jackson? Not picking up Berry? And yet there was Meeks, who is currently averaging a 13.0 point/10.9 rebound double-double in ACC games, standing totally alone under the basket with seven minutes left. No one yelled “Who’s got Meeks?” No one noticed. Mark it down. Two more points for Kennedy.
Because it is not always ballet-like, there is sometimes an inclination to discount the points he’s accumulating. Brice Johnson himself gave Meeks good-natured grief on Twitter late on Thursday, and you should click further for the entire entertaining conversation:
no comment.......haha https://t.co/ngjPMbQwlP— Brice Johnson (@bjohnson_23) January 27, 2017
But look at his next basket, when Justin Jackson missed a layup with 6:30 remaining.
Two of Virginia Tech’s best rebounders, Zach LeDay and Chris Clarke, are standing right there. Meeks is on the wrong side of the charge circle and they’re both positioned on the same side of the rim as the ball. Clearly, one of them is going to get the rebound.
But, there’s Kennedy. And somehow, because this is his go-to move, he kept the ball alive, sticking in a paw to tip the ball and poke it away, then corral it, absorb contact from LeDay, and score for an old-fashioned (most of Meeks’ plays are old-fashioned) three-point play.
“I saw they were about to reach for it,” Meeks says. “So I tipped it to myself and then grabbed it and laid it up.”
Meeks’ improvement is not as explosive as that shown by Johnson last season. But it’s every bit as important to this year’s Carolina team, because it allows Berry to be Berry and Jackson to be Jackson and, oh yeah, there’s Kennedy underneath the rim gobbling up all the offensive rebounds and occasionally putting them back in the hoop.
It’s much prettier when Jackson swoops to the basket or Berry drops through one of those three-pointers that doesn’t even touch the rim. But the part of Carolina’s offense that opposing coaches fear the most, the one they spend days talking about in preparation to play the Tar Heels, is their relentlessness on the backboards, and that starts with Meeks.
He’s learned little tricks, like when to grab the ball with two hands and when to simply tip it to keep the play going. “When it’s a long rebound, it’s hard to grab it with two hands because we are trying to go towards the board,” he says. “When it’s a missed layup or something like that, we have a much better chance of getting two hands on it.”
Meeks got very few typical post-guy-gets-the-ball-on-the-block touches on Thursday night. The one time he did came late in the game, when Virginia Tech suddenly decided to doubleteam him. No problem. He fired a quick pass across the lane to a wide-open Luke Maye, one of his three assists on the evening.
Meeks had seven offensive rebounds for the night; the entire Virginia Tech team had four. It’s the third time in eight ACC games and second time in the past three contests that Meeks has had as many or more offensive rebounds than the entire opposing team. He entered the game sixth in the country in offensive rebounding and proceeded to go out and get nearly double his average.
He hasn’t yet had that one memorable play that will come immediately to mind when he comes back to Chapel Hill in future years. But as the Tar Heels edge closer to the meat of the conference schedule, and games that may be decided by that one extra possession, they’ve got an important weapon in the paint. He’s now tied for 11th all-time at Carolina in rebounding, will soon be in the top ten, has a very good chance at the top five, and may squeak into the top three—ever.
And then, perhaps, he will be one to remember.