GLENDALE, Ariz. — Kennedy Meeks’ career arc has been somewhat similar to Sean May’s rise at North Carolina. And those comparisons are getting easier to make.
Both worked to get their bodies in better shape and steadily improved. For May, that eventually made him the Most Outstanding Player when the Tar Heels won the 2005 national championship.
Meeks, looking sleeker and stronger than earlier in his career, showed Saturday night that he’s ready to continue following May’s path by finishing his career as a big-time player in the bright lights of the Final Four.
Meeks scored a career-high-tying 25 points and pulled down 14 rebounds as the Tar Heels advanced to Monday’s championship game against Gonzaga with a 77–76 victory over Oregon.
His rebound of Berry’s missed free throw with four seconds left sealed the victory.
“He did a phenomenal job,” said May, UNC’s director of player personnel and certainly a candidate to replace C.B. McGrath as an assistant coach when McGrath leaves to become the head coach at UNC Wilmington.
“We have similar games. The end is here, this is it for him and I think he realizes that. He’s relishing in the moment and that’s similar to what I did in 2005. I couldn’t be prouder of the kid. He works extremely hard,” May said. “And to be a senior and have a night like this on the biggest stage. The biggest night of his career, in my opinion.”
May collected 26 points and 10 rebounds in UNC’s 75–70 championship-game victory over Illinois, which ended his career since he decided to forgo his senior season. Monday night will definitely be Meeks’ final game as a Tar Heel, and he’s poised for a similarly impressive exit.
May says Meeks’ performance looked a lot like his against the Illini.
“It was,” May said. “The difference is that I didn’t know that was the end for me. I wasn’t a senior. He’s living in the moment. If he embraces that, he’ll have another big night on Monday.”
May pulled down 63 rebounds in six 2005 NCAA tournament games. In five games, Meeks already has 59,
When it was suggested to Meeks that his effort on Saturday night was similar to May’s against Illinois, it had him glowing with pride.
“That’s my favorite player of all-time,” said Meeks, who tied his career high with 11 field goals and put up his 13th double-double of the season. “I don’t care who is in front of me. For you to say that means a lot to me. I’m just trying to play my game, trying to guard and make the best effort for my team.”
Not only was it his best effort, it was of historic significance. Meeks joined Carmelo Anthony, Ed O’Bannon, Danny Manning and Larry Bird as the only players with at least 25 points and 14 rebounds in the Final Four in the last 40 years.
“We came in, we both had to work on our bodies,” May said. “We both are undersized post players, we feed off of other people. We use the backboard to our advantage so we do have some similarities.
“He’s learning from his past experiences, going through some of the hardships that he went through early on. He’s seen a lot and done a lot and he’s not making the same mistakes,” May said.
Not only does Meeks look up to May, he has learned quite a bit about the post game since May joined the basketball staff.
“He’s definitely been important,” Meeks said. “Me talking to him all the time about ways to post up, bad ways to post up. Him sending me film and me going to his house just to hang out with him and get a feel for the game and his understanding of the game. I couldn’t ask for a better mentor than him or Rasheed Wallace.”
But the skills to make the plays are only one of the factors at play. Meeks seems to have pushed his intensity level up several notches, and his teammates are noticing. Nate Britt says that he can tell a big difference before recent games.
“Kennedy is a lot more out there,” Britt said. You can go ahead and assume that this is good.
“He’s getting up there on ball screens, making big-time plays on the offensive end,” Theo Pinson said. “He’s playing the complete game and the dude’s a competitor.”
Against Oregon, he embraced a favorable matchup and was able to find the holes in the Ducks’ matchup zone. He also seemed to be at the right place under the boards to pull down the big rebounds.
“Jordan Bell is a heck of a player, but I thought he was bigger,” May said of Meeks. “I said, ‘Kennedy, there’s no way they should be able to stop you, you’re too big.’ I told my teammates the same thing when we played Villanova, Wisconsin and Illinois. It’s great to see him have a big night like that.”
Joel Berry II said that although Bell did block four shots, he left opportunities at other times. Berry figured that the chances would be there for Meeks.
“I kind of knew it just because they have a shot blocker and sometimes when the shot blocker tries to block everything, that leaves the open run for the five man,” Berry said. “So I knew in the first half when I tried to shoot a high floater that 35 [Kavell Bigby-Williams] tried to block it and Kennedy got a wide-open layup.”
Coach Roy Williams was frustrated that the other big men weren’t taking advantage of the inside matchups.
“I thought we had a big advantage inside,” Williams said. “But we weren’t showing that, particularly Isaiah early was really struggling. And Kennedy had some success.”
This may be Arizona instead of St. Louis. But big play from the big man is looking a lot like that Final Four in 2005. Another night like that on Monday could produce the same sort of championship result.