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Kennedy Meeks gives UNC something South Carolina didn't have against Gonzaga

The hero of North Carolina’s semifinal win will be vital against Gonzaga.

Kennedy Meeks had the best game of his college career on Saturday. The North Carolina Tar Heels senior center totaled 25 points on 11-of-13 shooting. He had 14 rebounds, eight of them on offense. His on-court plus-minus was plus-8, the best for any player on either of the two teams on the court in Glendale, Ariz.

He is usually good, but this game was abnormally great for Meeks. His career highs entering the night were 25 points and 17 boards. Forgive me for this highly unscientific way of measuring production, but Meeks’ highest total of points and rebounds in a single game entering the night had been 36. Against power conference teams, it was 31, against Duke in this year’s ACC tournament. His new career high: 39.

These are just counting stats, but you get the idea. Meeks was dominant. He was also highly efficient, so there’s not much doubt this was the best game of his life. It happened to come in a national semifinal against Oregon at the Final Four. His Tar Heels won by a 77-76 score and will play Gonzaga for every marble on Saturday. The last play of the game was a Meeks offensive rebound before the buzzer to seal it.

The numbers do a good enough job telling the story of Meeks’ night. When he shot, the ball went through the hoop. When his teammates shot and missed, Meeks was crashing the glass with abandon. UNC scored 19 second-chance points, and Meeks was the principle reason. Thanks to Meeks’ steady diet of plexiglass, UNC’s offensive rebounding rate for the season is the best in the land, at 42 percent.

That’s Meeks’ greatest asset as a player, in general. When he’s been on the court this season and a UNC player has missed a shot, Meeks has won the rebound 16 percent of the time. He’s now scooped up 148 offensive boards this season. It’s outrageous. He was eighth in the country in O-boards per game entering Saturday, but all but one player above him is from a non-major league that’s decidedly not the ACC. On balance, you can call Meeks the best or second-best offensive rebounder in the country. His only real peer is Wake Forest’s John Collins, who’s not in the Final Four.

If North Carolina beats Gonzaga on Monday, Meeks grabbing a bunch of offensive rebounds will have a lot to do with it. But he brings other things that you need to beat the Zags — things South Carolina didn’t have when it lost to them on Saturday.

Meeks is a center’s center. That’ll be helpful against Gonzaga.

We’ve established that he’s an O-boards monster. But Meeks is unsurprisingly also a great defensive rebounder, with a top-50 individual rate nationally. He comes up with 25 percent of the shots other teams miss. He’s a good post defender, even though a lot of that can’t show up on the stat sheet. He’s a decent shot-blocker. His individual defensive rating this year is by far the best of his career, at about 93 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor. That’s the best on UNC by a country mile.

South Carolina doesn’t have bigs like Meeks, or like front-court partners Isaiah Hicks or Justin Jackson (when he’s playing power forward). The Gamecocks’ bigs did a commendable job on Saturday, at least insofar as Gonzaga’s pair of 7-foot centers, Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins, only had five offensive boards combined.

South Carolina’s defense is outstanding, but it’s more geared toward stopping teams with great guards. The Gamecocks shut down the three-point line for most of the season. Guard Sindarius Thornwell is an elite perimeter defender. But they don’t have any rim protectors in Meeks’ stratosphere. Collins and Karnowski scored 27 points on a combined 12-of-22 shooting and had 18 rebounds in total, most of them Collins’.

Gonzaga’s offense has great balance. The Bulldogs can score from wherever, more or less. But getting an edge against Karnowski and Collins is critical. There isn’t more than a handful of players in the country you’d rather trot out against either of them than Meeks. He’s probably a better matchup against the bigger, less nimble Karnowski, but he’ll be the key in any success UNC has containing either of those two giants.