With point guard extraordinaire Marcus Paige heading up what should be a top-notch offense, UNC basketball checks off many of the boxes you look for in a national title contender. One place where the Tar Heels might fall short, though, is at center, where rising sophomore Kennedy Meeks will be heading into his first full year as a starter.
Meeks played admirably in earning a spot in the lineup last season, bulling his way to 7.6 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. Even so, the hard-working youngster didn’t have anybody confusing him with Joel Embiid or Julius Randle as an interior presence.
Impressive as Meeks’ 290-pound bulk is, he’s on the short side for a center at 6’9”. Unsurprisingly, he’s also nothing special as a shot-blocker, having recorded only 0.8 rejections per game in his debut season.
In another year, a good-but-not-great center who can rebound well and play respectable offense would hardly be cause for concern on a roster with the other weapons that North Carolina boasts. In 2014-15, however, there’s going to be an unusual amount of pressure on the man in the middle for any would-be national champion.
Preseason favorite Kentucky features not one but two future NBA 7-footers in the pivot in bruising Dakari Johnson and defensive specialist Willie Cauley-Stein.
Wisconsin will be defending its own Final Four berth behind NCAA tournament hero Frank Kaminsky, another 7’0” veteran who can also bury the three-pointer.
Even Arizona’s Kaleb Tarczewski, who hasn’t yet risen to an elite level offensively, is a potent defensive presence because of his length (yes, also 7’0”).
Then there’s archrival Duke, who may have the most dangerous center of the lot. Jahlil Okafor is the consensus No. 1 recruit in the incoming freshman class, a back-to-the-basket scoring machine who makes up in power and skill what he may lack in height at 6’10”, 265 pounds.
In that competition, Meeks starts looking less like a solid starting option and more like a vulnerability for top opponents to exploit. That concern is magnified by the endurance issues that held UNC’s biggest body to under 20 minutes per game in 11 of his last 14 contests as a freshman.
The best thing the rising sophomore can do to improve his chances in the biggest matchups of 2014-15 will be to spend the summer building up his quickness. Against the taller, longer-armed opponents he'll have to face, he needs to be able to challenge entry passes and not let his man lob hook shots over his head all night.
Anything he can do to improve his mobility will also boost his stamina, giving him a better chance to contribute to the Tar Heels fast break with more than just a good outlet pass.
Offensively, he’s also got to improve his passing after handing out all of 0.8 assists a night as a freshman. The more plays UNC can run through Meeks in the post, the tougher it will be for a shot-blocker guarding him to help on dribble penetration. That's no small concern, because the dribble drive (or drive-and-kick) is the means by which the Heels will be getting a huge share of their points on most nights.
With his plodding style, Meeks is never going to be a superstar, especially on a roster as talent-rich as North Carolina’s. What he can do is keep other teams’ superstars from derailing the Tar Heels’ title hopes, but even that will test the limits of his capabilities next season.