CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 5 North Carolina’s frontcourt will be at full strength on Saturday when No. 17 Duke arrives for the second edition of this blue-blooded rivalry, which it hopes will provide a contrast to the first matchup last month.
North Carolina was confident in its post advantage ahead of its trip to Cameron Indoor, only to have that belief rattled by Isaiah Hicks’s hamstring injury in practice the day before. Without Hicks in the starting lineup, Duke focused its defensive efforts on Kennedy Meeks by fronting him with a big, typically Amile Jefferson, and providing backside help. The strategy worked as the senior center was held to nine points on 4-of-7 shooting, seven of which came in a five-minute stretch early in the second half.
UNC outscored Duke 34-24 in the paint, a narrow margin comparative to the season totals, and was outrebounded (31-30) despite leading the nation in rebound margin. To make matters worse, UNC had no answer for Duke’s Jayson Tatum, a stretch four that scored all 19 of his points after halftime, primarily by attacking the rim.
Roy Williams criticized Meeks’s lack of movement in the post following the loss at Cameron, and offered his expectations for this second time around on Thursday.
“Faster, harder, quicker, more explosive,” Williams said at his weekly press conference. “It’s a simple game… You’ve got to get your motor operating at a faster, harder, higher level. That’s all it is. You can’t go through the motions and you can’t operate on a speed that’s comfortable for you. The speed that’s comfortable for you may not be good enough to win the game.”
Meeks echoed his coach’s comments, detailing how he needed to be more assertive and make his cuts harder while finishing around the basket. The senior sounded particularly confident when asked about Hicks’s presence in the lineup.
“I think it will be a lot different,” Meeks said. “I just think Isaiah, of course, has to stay out of foul trouble and then he’ll be fine. But I don’t see it going like it did last time.”
Junior point guard Joel Berry accepted some of the blame for the frontcourt’s disappearance at Cameron, citing an inability by the Tar Heels’ perimeter players to find open passing lanes into the post.
Hicks’s athleticism should help counter Tatum’s skill set on defense, while balancing out the matchup with his scoring ability on the other end.
“We usually face a lot of perimeter players that play the four, so it wouldn’t be that different from what I’ve been guarding this whole time,” Hicks said.
Meeks and Hicks are combining for 23.0 points and 14.8 rebounds per game in ACC play, and the Tar Heels are expecting that post edge to lead to back-to-back outright regular season titles.