When Kennedy Meeks arrived at ACC media day in late October, he was handed a North Carolina polo shirt for the day’s endless loop of interviews, press conferences and video shoots.
The only problem—the XXXL shirt provided for the Tar Heel big man was too baggy.
“He told me he wore an extra-large, and I told him ‘No, I don’t think you wear an extra-large, because I wear an extra-large,’” sophomore swingman Justin Jackson said that day, glancing at Meeks, who was surrounded by reporters at the next table. “He put on the three-X, and it was actually too big for him, and I said, ‘Alright, I’ll take my comments back.’”
Meeks said he dropped 15 pounds in the offseason, and is listed at 260 pounds on North Carolina’s roster, a full 30 pounds lighter than the freshman who arrived in Chapel Hill in 2013. After missing seven games in the middle of the season with a knee bruise, the center has returned to the starting lineup, teaming with senior Brice Johnson to form one of the more dangerous frontcourts in the country.
That size up front could be a problem for No. 5 Duke Wednesday night in Chapel Hill. But then again, it could open up a favorable matchup to exploit.
With Amile Jefferson sidelined by a fractured right foot, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski has transitioned Brandon Ingram to become a power forward of sorts, even though the lanky 6-foot-9 freshman still spends much of his time on the perimeter. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it is—a year ago, the Blue Devils went small, with 6-foot-6 freshman Justise Winslow sliding to forward and Jefferson coming off the bench to complement Jahlil Okafor.
At 225 pounds, Winslow had the strength to go toe-to-toe with Johnson on the block. Ingram’s slim 190-pound frame will be tested against Johnson, who leads the team in scoring and rebounding with a nightly double-double. The Tar Heel forward has been held to single-digit points just three times all season, and erupted for 39 points and 23 rebounds against Florida State’s pair of 7-foot centers Jan. 4. Meeks is averaging 10.8 points per game in his own right, and 6-foot-9, 235-pound Isaiah Hicks is just a shade behind him with 9.6 points per game off the bench.
“North Carolina, really, they’ve always looked into the post. They should this year with Johnson, Meeks and these kids who are really good. They can complement them with depth and talent on the perimeter. We’ve got to be concerned with foul trouble, rebounding, how we defend that,” Krzyzewski said on a teleconference with reporters Monday. “I don’t know if there’s one answer. It’s difficult because that’s why they’re so good. They’re as good as anybody in the country.”
Krzyzewski said he hoped freshman Chase Jeter would be able to play effectively off the bench to spell Ingram and center Marshall Plumlee down low, but the depth-strapped Blue Devils will need Ingram to stay out of foul trouble against some of the biggest, most physical bodies in the ACC.
“For us on the offensive end, we’ve got to do a nice job and make sure that those guys get low position so they can use their size as an advantage when we’re bigger than the other guy and force them to play inside,” North Carolina head coach Roy Williams said during the ACC’s weekly teleconference.
For starters, Duke has to contain the Tar Heels on the offensive glass. Although No. 5 North Carolina had just one offensive board in Sunday’s rout of Pittsburgh, Williams’ squad grabs 13.3 per game and could threaten a Duke team ranked 183rd in the nation in defensive rebounding.
The Blue Devils were outrebounded 16-10 by No. 7 Virginia through the first 20 minutes Saturday, but flipped the script in the second half to win the battle 34-26 by game’s end. All seven of Ingram’s rebounds came after intermission.
“It’s a mindset where we have to have all five guys rebounding—from Marshall all the way to Derryck [Thornton] at point,” sophomore Grayson Allen said. “Us guards have to collapse down and find a body to block out and get those loose-ball rebounds that bounce around, so we have to do the same thing against UNC. They’re a really big team, they crash the offensive boards hard and it’s going to be a fight down there to block out and get rebounds.”
But for as much damage as the Tar Heels could cause Duke down low, they will face an equally perplexing challenge on the other end. How North Carolina tries to guard Ingram will go a long way toward dictating the tempo, flow and, ultimately, the outcome of Wednesday’s game.
Against the Cavaliers, Ingram started 0-of-3 from the floor, then erupted for 18 straight Duke points to help the Blue Devils claw their way back from an 11-point first-half deficit. The Kinston, N.C., native got so hot that Virginia head coach Tony Bennett switched 6-foot-5 star Malcolm Brogdon off of Grayson Allen and onto Ingram in an attempt to slow him down, and though Ingram did cool off, he wound up with a game-high 25 points.
Ingram will have an edge against Johnson and Hicks if he can lure the larger Tar Heels out onto the perimeter, where they have less experience guarding opponents on an island. The swingman victimized Virginia forward Anthony Gill in the same way Saturday late in the first half as he started to heat up, hitting a 3-pointer from the left wing on one possession, then pump-faking and driving past the larger Gill for a two-handed dunk soon afterward.
“Brice and Isaiah have to be able to get on the floor and play the guys and get a hand up on the shot and still be able to play the drive and not get beat on a direct cut,” said Williams, who recruited Ingram heavily but now has to devise a scheme to slow him down. “If you get beat and make him make a banana cut, you have the opportunity to get some help.”
Sticking Jackson on Ingram would match up players with similar length and skill-sets, but would likely force the Tar Heels to go small, voiding their advantage in the post. North Carolina has plenty of perimeter weapons in Jackson, Marcus Paige and Joel Berry II, but keeping two bigs on the floor at all times could give Duke the most grief, provided they can limit Ingram’s explosiveness.