Dreaming big: UNC seeks frontcourt revival

acarter@newsobserver.comNovember 7, 2013 

— The great hope of North Carolina’s frontcourt might rest on the shoulders of a freshman who has lost about 35 pounds since arriving on campus in the summer. Or maybe it rests on a sophomore who had never really played basketball before high school. Or on another sophomore who admitted not long ago that he was a defensive liability a season ago.

Or, more likely, it rests with all of them: Kennedy Meeks, the freshman, and sophomores Joel James and Brice Johnson – a threesome whose development and production will go a long way toward determining whether the Tar Heels return to what they always were under coach Roy Williams until a season ago: an inside-out team reliant on a consistent back-to-the-basket scorer in the post.

UNC didn’t have that last year, and so Williams did something he never had before at UNC. He went small.

The Tar Heels’ four-guard lineup gave them their best chance, and after Williams made the change in mid-February, UNC was born again. Even so, it was a change Williams made begrudgingly, and one he never seemed to embrace. He did it out of necessity, not out of desire, and at one point he said, almost defiantly, that the Tar Heels wouldn’t be small forever.

Or even for more than a couple of months. Small ball is out. What’s old is new again. At least Williams hopes.

“One of the big guys has got to step forward and say, ‘I’m going to do this,’” Williams said recently. “And if one of the big guys steps forward, and if we stay healthy, we can be pretty doggone good. And last year, we needed some good things to happen, and the big guys that had to come through were basically freshmen.

“At least this year a couple of them are sophomores.”

Makings of formidable frontcourt

The makeup of this UNC team is different. That’s part of the reason the Tar Heels need their post players to emerge. There are far more of them than there are guards – and UNC’s best guard, junior P.J. Hairston, will begin the season serving a suspension after a variety of off-court transgressions.

It’s not a coincidence, though, that Williams’ best teams at UNC have shared common traits. Strong point guard play. Effective perimeter shooting. And, perhaps most important, reliable, game-in, game-out production in the post. The Tar Heels’ 2005 national championship team had that with Sean May. The 2009 national championship team had that with Tyler Hansbrough. The 2012 team, one derailed by injuries in March, had that with Tyler Zeller and John Henson.

The departures of those two, though, left a large void that UNC never filled a season ago. The 6-foot-11 Desmond Hubert, a junior, started throughout the first half and played sound defense but couldn’t score effectively. Johnson could score but struggled to play defense. And James, still learning how to play the game after picking it up in high school, was raw in all aspects.

James Michael McAdoo, the 6-foot-9 forward who returned for his junior season, was the only member of the frontcourt who averaged double figures in scoring. And even that came with a caveat, given McAdoo isn’t a traditional back-to-the basket power forward. For the first time since the 2007-08 season, and for just the second time under Williams, UNC a season ago didn’t feature two post players who averaged double-figures in points.

There is hope that things will be different now. Part of it comes with the expected progression of James and Johnson, both of whom have said they’re far more comfortable entering their second seasons than they were their first. Another part of it comes with the arrival of Meeks, the center from Charlotte, and Isaiah Hicks, a lanky 6-foot-9 forward from Oxford who was considered the best high school prospect in the state a season ago.

Throughout the preseason, Johnson and Hicks competed for playing time at power forward, while Meeks and James have gone back and forth at center. McAdoo, who has natural physique of a power forward, has spent time there and at small forward, where he’s likely to start the season given the absence of Hairston.

“He’s pretty comfortable out there,” said Marcus Paige, the sophomore point guard. “I know people don’t realize that because he’s never had to do it. But he’s improved his ball-handling a lot. And we’re not going to expect him to be a playmaker out there, but he can still play the three and get in that (mid-range zone) that he likes to play in.”

Two seasons ago, former point guard Kendall Marshall rewrote UNC’s records for assists because of all that surrounded him – especially on the inside. Marshall made it look easy to compile gaudy assist totals while passing to the likes of Zeller and Henson. Paige didn’t have that luxury last year, but he might have something closer to it this year – especially if Meeks continues to work himself into shape.

When he arrived at UNC, Meeks weighed nearly 320 pounds, Williams said. Now he’s a trimmer 285. He’s not exactly svelte, but Meeks is the kind of interior player that UNC hasn’t had in years – one with soft hands, a quick release, a natural rebounding ability and a talent for passing back out to an open man on the perimeter, or down the court after a rebound. He’s reminiscent a bit of May, both physically and in ability, and Williams hasn’t been shy about praising Meeks.

“I do believe that he’s the best outlet passer – rebounder, outlet-passing big guy – that I’ve ever had,” Williams said of Meeks, a McDonald’s All-American last season. “And I’ve had some pretty big passers. Sean May was really a good passer. But I think that Kennedy does that better than anybody.

“And like I say, now we’ve got to get guys to take advantage of that skill.”

Bigs embrace bigger responsibility

Williams’ offensive philosophy is built on running, and maximizing scoring chances in transition. Zeller was an extraordinary runner for his size. Johnson might be UNC’s best up-and-down post player, but he spent his off-season focused on improving his defense, which he acknowledged was the weakest part of his game a season ago.

Part of the problem, Johnson said, was weight. Opposing players easily pushed him around, he said. The 6-foot-9 Johnson entered last season at 187 pounds. He added more than 20 pounds in the off-season, and dedicated himself to becoming a stronger, meaner player on the defensive end. That’s how it had to be, he said, after Williams stressed to him the importance of better defending the lane.

“It’s a big difference now,” Johnson said. “My teammates can count on me not to give up a play now. Last year, you just didn’t know. You could be like, ‘Well, is Brice going to play defense now, is he going to stop his man?’ Now it’s like, ‘Oh, we know he’s going to give an effort to try.’”

Effort was rarely an issue for James during his freshman season. Yet as hard as he tried, a lack of experience hindered him. Early on, he sometimes appeared lost in the shuffle of UNC’s free-flowing offense. On defense, James struggled to guard players with more refined skills.

And like Meeks, James, too, had to transform his body. In high school in South Florida he weighed 315 pounds. He trimmed down to 255, and then bulked back up to 280, which is about where he is now. He has spent the summer and the fall fighting Meeks for the starting center spot.

“We sit there and trash talk with each other all the time,” James said recently, with a smile.

The competition is fierce but also brotherly. Collectively, the players in UNC’s frontcourt understand they have to be better than they were a season ago – they understand that it’s up to them, whether the Tar Heels return to Williams’ more preferred playing style, or whether the coaching staff is forced to improvise again to compensate for shortcomings on the interior.

For the second consecutive year, though, UNC enters a season without any guarantees in the post. Nothing is proven. There is, at least not yet, no May or Hansbrough, no Zeller or Henson.

There is hope, yes, but plenty of questions, too:

Can Meeks, as skilled as he is, keep up? Is Johnson really no longer a defensive liability? Can Hubert contribute on both ends of the court instead of just one? Will James be more refined instead of raw? Can McAdoo really thrive at small forward? Will Hicks’ high school dominance translate, even a little, to his freshman year of college?

The questions surrounding McAdoo might be most intriguing of all. After a timid start to his freshman season, he thrived in March of 2012 when he had a chance to play alongside Zeller, who received plenty of defensive attention that allowed McAdoo freedom. McAdoo didn’t have that kind of help last season.

“It’s been a shame that he hasn’t had that low-post presence to play with and enable him to do some other things,” Williams said of McAdoo. “But in some ways it’s also made his game, (and) given a greater variety to his game. And the good thing is, with James Michael, I still don’t know how good he’s going to be.

“But I know it’s a pretty doggone good problem to have.”

Williams could say the same thing about the rest of his frontcourt: He doesn’t know how good it’s going to be. Or even, really, what it might look like. Three players spent significant time at center during UNC’s final exhibition game – Meeks, James and Hubert – while Johnson and Hicks traded time at power forward. McAdoo, meanwhile, played the three-spot exclusively.

Williams has spent plenty of time this preseason experimenting and tinkering. He’s hoping, eventually, the right combination emerges. He’s hoping, in time, that the questions surrounding the frontcourt disappear, and that the Tar Heels thrive again in a familiar, conventional system responsible for two national titles and hundreds of victories.

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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