Luke DeCock

Tar Heels’ perimeter play has, unusually, left big men behind – DeCock

As Justin Jackson and Joel Berry have shot North Carolina through the NCAA tournament and into a regional final, Kennedy Meeks has become sort of an interested spectator when the Tar Heels have the ball. Unusually, North Carolina’s inside players are suddenly on the outs.

“When those guys are hitting shots, I want them shooting every time, too,” Meeks said. “If they’re making it. I couldn’t care less, honestly.”

It’s a curious thing that North Carolina is a win away from the Final Four and Meeks and Isaiah Hicks have yet to really put their stamp on a game. So far, it’s been a very perimeter-oriented tournament for the Tar Heels, which probably says less about the two big men than how well Berry and Jackson have played.

A good chunk of Meeks’ points typically come on offensive rebounds anyway. Still, feeding the post is such a core part of North Carolina’s identity that there’s something odd about it being such a nonfactor so far – and it could very well not be a huge factor again Sunday.

The first Kentucky game was an up-and-down, guard-dominated affair, the pace of which left both Meeks and Hicks in foul trouble, limited to a total of 25 minutes. Kentucky big man Bam Adebayo fouled out as well, which was in theory more damaging for the Wildcats, who don’t have the same forward depth as the Tar Heels. In theory, anyway – North Carolina lost 103-100, and the big men were a sideshow compared to the scoring duel perpetrated by Jackson and Malik Monk.

“I’m pretty sure I fouled out before he did,” Meeks joked Sunday. “You can figure it out.”

There’s always a heavy focus on Adebayo from any opponent – he was held to two points by UCLA on Friday, a pyrrhic victory for the Bruins – but North Carolina is one of the few teams equipped to handle him.

In the tournament, aside from the Texas Southern game, when all of the Tar Heels scored at will, the two senior bigs have been held relatively quiet, at least from a scoring perspective. Arkansas’ pressure on the perimeter stalled the North Carolina offense and kept the Tar Heels from getting the ball inside on a regular basis, although Meeks ended up with a team-high 16 points, two coming on the critical put-back after Berry’s stumble and heave, and Hicks scored one of the game’s most important baskets late. Friday, Luke Maye, somewhat unexpectedly, ended up being a better matchup against Butler’s smaller, mobile big men.

Which isn’t to say they aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do: Meeks has two double-digit rebounding games and a double-double against Arkansas; Hicks had a point per minute against Texas Southern. Meeks is averaging 11.3 points in the tournament, Hicks 11.7.

But there just hasn’t been that game where North Carolina has pounded the ball inside, taken advantage of Meeks’ post moves or Hicks’ slippery athleticism, and where that makes the difference for the Tar Heels. Hicks came into the NCAA tournament off a dominant run of games – 21, 19 and 19 points against Duke, Miami and Duke – but was really only at that level against Texas Southern, which not surprisingly found Hicks unguardable.

“I got on them last night in the game because we took like five outside shots in a row one time and didn’t make any of them,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “I’ve always said if you take two 3s in a row and you miss, then the next one should be get the ball inside the lane at one point. It if comes back out, that’s fine. But no, we still want to attack it inside. We haven’t been as successful. But the game, the flow of the game changes.”

And not to compare either to Brice Johnson, who was a veritable phenomenon at this time a year ago, but Johnson had his most dominant game at this moment, posting a 25-point double-double against Notre Dame, making the most of the mismatch to send the Tar Heels to Houston.

The better lesson there, rather than making individual comparisons, is perhaps this: North Carolina is going to need more than Berry and Jackson to win a national title. The Tar Heels already played their wild card Friday, when Maye erupted. They’ll need Hicks and Meeks at some point, if not Sunday, then eventually.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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