North Carolina

UNC hoping Johnson, Meeks become frontcourt standouts

North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks blocks a shot by Belmont Abbey’s Nicholas Fullard during a Nov. 7 exhibition in Chapel Hill. Meeks has lost nearly 50 pounds since arriving at UNC more than a year ago.
North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks blocks a shot by Belmont Abbey’s Nicholas Fullard during a Nov. 7 exhibition in Chapel Hill. Meeks has lost nearly 50 pounds since arriving at UNC more than a year ago. ehyman@newsobserver.com

It has been a running joke for a while now at North Carolina that if coach Roy Williams could play mad scientist he might go into the lab and find a way to combine the best attributes of his post players and come up with a player a lot like Tyler Hansbrough or Sean May.

Just take Brice Johnson’s offense and combine it with Desmond Hubert’s defense and maybe mix that with Kennedy Meeks’ size and behold the All-American candidate who would emerge. Except now, finally, the Tar Heels’ front-court pieces might be sustainable on their own.

That’s the hope, anyway: that Johnson, a junior power forward, finally is skilled enough not to be a defensive liability, and that Meeks, a sophomore, is in good enough shape to play at a consistently high level and that Hubert, a senior, might be able to provide a solid 10 minutes as a reserve.

There is no May for these Tar Heels, no Hansbrough. But UNC has the pieces, more of them than in the past two seasons, to get back to the style of play Williams advocates – an inside-out game built on speed and running the fast break.

Johnson has proven he can do that. Meeks, who has lost nearly 50 pounds since arriving more than a year ago, should be better suited to do that. Those two will start while Williams watches from the bench, hoping one – or both – will realize their considerable potential.

“I’ve said this so many times I’m already sick of hearing it myself, but one or two or three of those guys have got to step up and say I’m going to be a big-time player,” Williams said recently. “I don’t think there’s anybody that’s questioning here that Marcus (Paige) last year stepped up and said, ‘I’m going to be a big-time player.’

“Now one of the post players has got to step up and say that and not be willing to run up and down the court and wait on Marcus to do something.”

Williams would be fine if Hubert became more of a “big-time player,” as he put it, or if it was Isaiah Hicks, a 6-foot-9 sophomore who arrived last season as the top high school prospect in the state.

Hicks, after struggling to find a position and a role last season, will be back at his natural position of power forward and his role as a reserve should increase. Joel James, a 6-10 junior, also will add depth.

Above all, though, the onus will be on Johnson and Meeks to make UNC’s frontcourt formidable again. The Tar Heels made strides a season ago but during the past two seasons they haven’t had the kind of production that Williams prefers.

Two seasons ago, UNC was so bereft of depth and skill in the frontcourt that Williams utilized a four-guard lineup during the final month of the season. Last season, Johnson and Meeks had their moments, but UNC most relied on Paige, a junior All-America candidate, while inconsistency reigned elsewhere.

Now, with Johnson and Meeks back, and with Hicks, Hubert and James behind them, the question is whether the Tar Heels can return to Williams’ preferred style of play. His best teams have shared similar characteristics: the dominant point guard, the go-to player – or players – in the post.

UNC knows it has one of those, in Paige. But the other?

“We still don’t have anybody that’s proven they can be an inside scorer – whether it’s Tyler Hansbrough, Tyler Zeller, Sean May,” Williams said. “We don’t have anybody on this team that they can score against really quality opponents every night.”

At least no one who has proven he can do that. Meeks and Johnson have done it in stretches. Meeks, 6-9 and down to about 270 pounds, played well at times last season – like when his 23 points led UNC to a victory at Florida State – but disappeared in others.

His weight loss, which has been a constant discussion point, should enable him to better handle the demands of the Tar Heels’ preferred tempo. Meeks’ best fast-break asset last season was his ability to pass ahead over the defense. Now he’s more adept at running, too.

“I’m really proud of him, of what he’s done,” said Johnson, who has faced the opposite challenge of Meeks and now weighs about 230 pounds. “Because it takes a lot to lose that much weight (in) a year’s time. I mean, he looks great. He’s playing great. He looks great out there on the other block.

“He’s becoming that player that coach really wants him to be. He’s a lot more explosive than he was last year. And hopefully he’ll have more dunks than Marcus this year.”

Johnson, too, has come a ways. Always a capable offensive player, he believes his own weight gain will better equip him to handle the rigor of playing against burlier players in the post.

During his first two seasons, Johnson admits he was pushed around. He played some last season at center, too, against even bigger competition. UNC’s front-court depth should allow him to play solely at power forward.

“I won’t be bullied,” Johnson said. “I can be the bully now, and not be bullied.”

That could be a motto for the frontcourt as a whole. The past two seasons – two seasons ago, especially – UNC was bullied down low. The Tar Heels progressed last season before losing junior forward James Michael McAdoo to the NBA draft.

Mostly, the frontcourt has returned intact and, with it, the hope that the Tar Heels can be as good down low as some of Williams’ other memorable teams.

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