The general uncertainty surrounding Kennedy Meeks’ sprained left knee makes it impossible to speculate whether the big man will be able to play Thursday against Wisconsin, but if North Carolina’s recent history of bad injury luck in the NCAA tournament is any indication, he won't.
From Ty Lawson to John Henson to Kendall Marshall to P.J. Hairston to Brice Johnson, the Tar Heels have put together quite the list of unfortunately timed March injuries, some more damaging than others.
Meeks certainly would be on that list if he can’t play against the Badgers, and while the Tar Heels certainly would be better off with Meeks than without him, his loss might not be as crippling against Wisconsin as another team, or as another player would be against the Badgers.
Wisconsin’s versatile, mobile, all-everything 7-footer Frank Kaminsky is a matchup challenge no matter who tries to guard him, but a plodding Meeks was never the best option there anyway.
Even with Meeks in the lineup, that assignment likely would have fallen to Johnson or Isaiah Hicks or even Justin Jackson, who are better equipped to range out to the perimeter with Kaminsky – an assignment reserve forward Desmond Hubert would have drawn were he not out for the season with a knee injury.
The Badgers have two other big forwards who are equally comfortable outside in Nigel Hayes and Sam Dekker, so Meeks was going to be at a disadvantage against all of them. This is a game for Hicks, for Jackson and perhaps Jackson Simmons, less for Johnson, and not at all for Meeks or Joel James, who are at their best when they can body up with another big man.
“I love ‘em, but if you’ve got Joel and Kennedy and Brice, you’re not going to be very good going out there” on the perimeter, North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “When we had Tyler Hansbrough, who could slide his feet like crazy, we could do more out there.”
Defensively, Meeks can’t offer a ton of help against Wisconsin. Offensively, the key is going to be whether Jackson and J.P. Tokoto can take advantage of what could be potential mismatches against bigger, slower players. That won’t change whether Meeks plays or not.
Meeks has had an MRI exam, but North Carolina hasn't released any information about the results of that scan or Meeks' meeting with doctors on Monday beyond “left knee sprain.” The fact that Meeks went through the non-contact portion of practice Tuesday certainly indicates it's not the worst-case scenario of a torn ACL or the like, but it leaves a very narrow window for him to be available on Thursday.
If it’s relatively minor, even if he misses the Wisconsin game, he might be available to face Xavier or Arizona should North Carolina advance, and the Tar Heels would sorely need him against the bulk of either of those teams: Arizona’s front line is 7-0, 6-8, 6-7 and has taken a total of 18 3-point attempts all season, and Xavier’s big-man trio weighs a combined 750 pounds. Either group would be a much better matchup for the Tar Heels’ forwards, Meeks especially.
If North Carolina was going to lose a player to injury – and the Tar Heels always seem to lose at least one – losing Meeks for the Wisconsin game isn’t the worst-case scenario. This was always going to be a tough matchup for North Carolina. It wouldn’t be that much tougher without Meeks.
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