Roy Williams, UNC still searching for reliable option at center

Freshman center Kennedy Meeks is averaging 7.3 poiints and six rebounds for the Tar Heels this season, largely in a reserve role.

Bob Donnan/Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — No. 19 North Carolina (10-3) has had its ups and downs this season, but the Tar Heels just hope that a bigger problem isn’t on the horizon as ACC play looms. That problem is a familiar one, though: the lack of a viable option at the center position.

It was an issue last year, and it forced head coach Roy Williams to use a smaller lineup in the final 13 games of the season. The move forced now-junior forward James Michael McAdoo to play out of position at center. 

If Williams has his way, the Tar Heels will never use that lineup again. And he hasn’t had to as of yet, until starting sophomore center Joel James went out with a knee injury (he’s not expected to be back until after UNC’s ACC opener at Wake Forest). James, a 6-foot-10, 280-pound sophomore, has not exactly been lighting the world on fire, but he was much more competent of an option than UNC had there a year ago.

In the three games since James’ injury, though, UNC’s starting center (twice sophomore Brice Johnson, once freshmen Kennedy Meeks) has averaged 3.7 points on 5-of-14 shooting, 4.7 rebounds, two blocks, two fouls and three turnovers in 18 minutes per game. Prior to his first two starts this season, Johnson was averaging 12.5 points on 56.2 percent shooting in 20.6 minutes, adding 7.1 rebounds. In his two starts, he averaged 5.5 points and 4.5 rebounds (he fouled out in an overtime win over Davidson).

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So Williams went to Meeks instead. Meeks was 0-of-3 and committed four turnovers in 16 minutes in UNC’s 84-51 win over UNC-Wilmington.

"Brice started the last two games and didn’t play well, and so I decided to give Kennedy a shot," Williams said following the win. "When Joel gets healthy, we might put Joel back in there. We could put Brice in there. I’m not married to any individual starting."

Those words are oddly familiar. It’s what he said a lot last year — Desmond Hubert started most of the games at center, but he’s a defensive specialist and went scoreless in eight of 18 starts last season, never scoring more than six points. This year, James was averaging 3.9 points but had just one scoreless effort and was rebounding and defending much better than he did last year. While he never had an awesome game in his starts this year, James was never bad, either. That hasn’t been the case for his replacements, who had been both playing well off the bench.

In fact, if you count his game against Texas when he came in for James, Johnson had averaged 5.7 points on 8-of-21 shooting in his last three games as essentially a starter. In his first game coming off the bench again against Wilmington, he responded with 14 points — his best outing in four games.

"Felt great to finally be able to do what I know I can do instead of not doing — I didn’t do it the other three games," Johnson said, shaking his head. "I was pretty bad. Probably the worst three games I ever played."

So what is it about starting? Is it different?

"It’s not," Johnson said. "It’s just — I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I don’t even want to talk about it. I done went past it. It’s over. It just feels better to be back the way I am."

Meeks got his first start in Johnson’s stead. The numbers certainly tell the tale, but his nerves were evident when on one of the game’s first possessions, a simple post feed from point guard Marcus Paige bounced off his hands and out of bounds. Meeks has perhaps the best hands on the team, and is one of the Tar Heels’ most natural rebounders. Paige doesn’t understand why the starter at the five-spot has been struggling, either. He could only laugh when asked about it.

"That’s been weird," Paige admitted. "Coach kind of made fun of Brice. He had a couple bad games in a row. He played better tonight, got back in double figures, and then Kennedy gets the start. I guess he might have had some jitters or something. The first pass just bounced right off his chest. It happens. He was a little nervous."

Paige didn’t seem all that concerned. Understandably, since those two had been playing well until their stint as starters.

McAdoo said his teammates had a theory.

"I don’t know, man. Somebody was joking in the locker room that Tyler Zeller must have put a curse on that starting five-position," McAdoo said. "I don’t know. I definitely think it’s just something where Kennedy is young. I was in that position. It’s a different role, starting. I think it’ll just come with time. It’s just good to see Brice playing back to his normal self today."

Sounds silly, right? UNC’s last ACC Player of the Year, 7-footer Tyler Zeller, is now a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers. He averaged 16.3 points and 9.6 rebounds in the 2011-12 season, one that likely would’ve seen the Tar Heels end up in the Final Four were it not for an injury to point guard Kendall Marshall. But the fact remains: since Zeller left Chapel Hill, no traditional starting center has posted a double-figure scoring game against a Division-I opponent. That’s 35 games.

McAdoo’s stretch at center last year with the small lineup was very difficult on him. His scoring numbers weren’t all that different – 13.5 points per game at center; 14.9 at his natural spot — but his rebounds dropped from 8.2 to 5.8 and his free-throw attempts per game were nearly cut in half. More importantly, it was tough on McAdoo to bang with bigger ACC centers, and he suffered a back injury that made things even more painful.

Williams wants to go with a more traditional lineup for a variety of reasons, but one of those is that McAdoo is back for his junior season with at least the hope, if not the expectation, that he could go back to his natural position. McAdoo will do what he needs to do for the team to be successful, including having to play some at the three-spot this year when both P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald were out, but he’d rather just stay away from the center spot.

He scored 23 points on 11-of-14 shooting against UNC-Wilmington, his best game of the season, and the last thing he wants is to have to go back to the five-spot. Again.

When asked if he was worried about that possibility, he could just smile wryly.

"I don’t want to talk about that," he said. "But hopefully not."