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For Once, Big Men — Not Guards — Can Decide the NCAA Champion

North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks feasted Saturday — he’ll have to do it again to bring a title back to Chapel Hill

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Kennedy Meeks picked the perfect time for the game of his life. UNC’s senior center was everywhere on Saturday, with a career-high 25 points and 14 rebounds on 11-of-13 shooting, including sealing the game with an offensive rebound off a missed free throw in the final seconds. A McDonald’s All American who came to Chapel Hill weighing close to 300 pounds, Meeks has spent the last four years working on his body, turning himself into a relatively svelte 6-foot-10, 260-pound player capable of taking over a Final Four game. And he still had more than enough size to dominate Oregon’s undersized front line.

For the first time in the NCAA tournament, Oregon missed senior center Chris Bouchard, who tore his ACL in the Pac-12 tournament. Jordan Bell had been the breakout star of March, dominating bigger front lines as a small-ball 5, and becoming only the fifth player since 1985 to have five 10-plus rebound games in the tournament. Bell is a great rebounder, but he prefers to chase balls in the air rather than box out, and that came back to bite Dana Altman’s team on Saturday, when Oregon gave up two offensive rebounds off missed free throws in the final six seconds. Bell didn’t box out Theo Pinson the first time, and Pinson knocked the ball out to Joel Berry II. The second time, Meeks pushed Bell under the basket and grabbed the board. He just couldn’t be denied on Saturday.

Oregon was giving up size in the frontcourt at multiple positions. Meeks outweighed Bell by more than 40 pounds, while Isaiah Hicks (6-foot-9 and 242 pounds) was bigger and faster than Dillon Brooks (6-foot-7 and 225 pounds), and Justin Jackson (6-foot-8 and 210 pounds) towered over Tyler Dorsey (6-foot-4 and 195 pounds). UNC had even more size coming off the bench, with freshman McDonald’s All American center Tony Bradley (6-foot-10 and 240 pounds) and Elite Eight hero Luke Maye (6-foot-8 and 235 pounds) rounding out their frontcourt rotation. The only way for the Ducks to make up for their lack of size was to go to a matchup zone, which created an opening for Meeks to take over.

Meeks looked like a slimmer reincarnation of Sean May, the anchor of UNC’s 2005 championship run, on Saturday. He did a great job of finding the open spots in the zone, cutting into the high post, and sealing his man in the low post for easy baskets at the rim. He repeatedly beat Oregon down the floor for points in transition, and his big hands and soft touch allowed him to score on tip-ins where he never even grabbed the ball. It was the type of performance you would expect for a senior who has played in a ton of big games over the course of his college career. When a team plays a zone, they are conceding they don’t have the athletes to hang with their opponent. By going away from a man defense, they are trying to turn the game into a mental battle based on who has more skill and can execute better in the half court. UNC starts two seniors and three juniors who played in the Final Four last season: They weren’t going to be taken by surprise by anything Oregon did.

Roy Williams doesn’t always get a lot of credit for X’s and O’s, but he made a huge adjustment on Saturday, going away from his preferred two-big-man lineups to play Jackson at the 4 and Meeks at the 5 in the second half. Hicks, who finished with two points on 1-of-12 shooting, didn’t have the shooting ability to beat the Oregon zone, while Maye couldn’t stay in front of any of the smaller and faster Duck players on defense. Jackson’s versatility has been a key part of UNC’s run to the national title game, and Meeks didn’t need any help to dominate the paint on Saturday. Playing with Jackson gave Meeks even more space to work on offense, putting Bell and backup center Kavell Bigby-Williams — neither of whom had the muscle to push Meeks off his spots — in a difficult position.

It hasn’t always been easy for Meeks at North Carolina, where he spent his first three seasons playing in the shadow of Brice Johnson. However, he has taken his game to another level in the last week, as he’s coming off a career-high 17-rebound performance against Kentucky in the Elite Eight. As a rule, big men take longer to develop than guards, and that’s especially true for someone who came into college with a weight problem.

Meeks will have a much bigger challenge on Monday when he goes up against Gonzaga’s supersized center duo of Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins. It will be a fascinating matchup of strength on strength. Karnowski (7-foot-1 and 300 pounds) is much bigger than Meeks, but he’s not nearly as fast. Collins, meanwhile, is taller and more skilled, but he’s not nearly as strong. The UNC senior is going to have to use every trick in the book to outwit and outfox Gonzaga’s pair of 7-footers, because he’s not going to be able to get easy baskets against a zone defense like he did against Oregon. It will be a good test for what he will face at the next level, as his lack of elite measurables for an NBA center is why he’s currently projected as a late second-round pick by DraftExpress.

As much as people talk about guard play in the NCAA tournament, the two games on Saturday came down to who won the battle in the middle, and the two teams playing in the national title game have the two best center rotations in the country. UNC and Gonzaga each have an elite senior center backed up by a McDonald’s All American, and the pair that wins the matchup will give their team a great shot at cutting down the nets on Monday. For Kennedy Meeks, it’s a game four years in the making. He has had legendary performances in UNC’s last two games. He needs one more on Monday to become a legend.