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North Carolina’s Justin Jackson and Kennedy Meeks seek second shot at a championship

North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks, left, and Justin Jackson react during the second half in the semifinals of the Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament against Oregon, Saturday, April 1, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. (David J. Phillip / Associated Press)
North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks, left, and Justin Jackson react during the second half in the semifinals of the Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament against Oregon, Saturday, April 1, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. (David J. Phillip / Associated Press)

GLENDALE, Ariz. – There is an idea many people are having about this year’s national championship game that, because Villanova’s Kris Jenkins hit a buzzer-beater to beat North Carolina in last year’s title game, the Tar Heels must be especially motivated this year.

As if a program with 20 Final Four appearances somehow did not try as hard in the years after it attained success. Maybe it has something to do with the UNC players naming their group chat “Redemption.”

The truth is that once the ball is tipped on Monday, both teams will be playing with maximum desire. Gonzaga wants to win just as badly.

The only impact Jenkins’ shot will have, is if it in any way influenced UNC’s two best players to return this season for another shot at a championship.

The Tar Heels are led by two players with presidential names, both of whom entered the NBA Draft last season. Justin Jackson and Kennedy Meeks both withdrew their names from draft consideration.

When asked if the heartbreaking conclusion to last year’s national championship played a role in his decision to return to school, Jackson said, “I don’t know if it was how it ended, but it was knowing we’d maybe, possibly be able to get back to a Final Four. That definitely played into my decision a little bit because I knew we’d have a chance to do some huge things again. At the end of the day, team accomplishments always allow for more individual accomplishments, whatever those might be.”

While both players had valid reasons to return to school – the NBA wanted Meeks to get more athletic and Jackson to become a better shooter – maybe last year’s heartbreaking finish played a role as well. Now they are just 40 minutes away from a championship.

How important are Jackson and Meeks to UNC? The other Tar Heels combined to make just 8-of-42 shots in Saturday’s 77-76 semifinal win over Oregon.

Jackson is so unique as to sometimes appear awkward – his 6-foot-8 body seems impossibly long and angular, and he plays with a herky-jerky style that makes his runners and floaters seem accidental – taken at odd angles and out of rhythm – until they go in.

During the draft evaluation process Jackson was told that the modern NBA, obsessed with floor spacing, did not have a place for a small forward who couldn’t shoot 3-pointers. So Jackson went back to school and made more 3-pointers this season – 105 and counting – than any player in school history.

He is UNC’s leading scorer (18.3 ppg) and a defender who is capable of suffocating opposing guards with his length and quickness. Because the Tar Heels have the luxury of playing him alongside two monsters in Meeks and Isaiah Hicks, other teams are nearly always forced to defend him with a much smaller player.

For example, Gonzaga’s Johnathan Williams is the Zags player best suited to defending Jackson, but then a guard would have to defend the 6-foot-9 Hicks, unless Mark Few is willing to try a brand-new three-post lineup.

While Jackson has turned himself into a model modern basketball player, Meeks remains an anachronism. The 6-foot-10, 260-pound forward uses a whaler’s muscles and ballet dancer’s feet to squeeze off shots in the paint.

Meeks decidedly relatively quickly that he would return to Chapel Hill for his senior season, thereby solidifying a frontcourt that has emerged as one of the best groups of rebounders in the modern era of college basketball.

Meeks came into college weighing more than 300 pounds, and might wish he had some of that girth back to use against GU’s 7-1, 300-pound Przemek Karnowski.

“It’s strange, and Mark (Few) and I were talking about it a few minutes ago, that all year long we’ve had to send our big guys on the court to play against all those screen-and-pop guys that want to shoot 3-point shots,” Roy Williams mused on Sunday.

Only one team since 1980 has had a rebounding margin larger than the 13.0 advantage the Tar Heels enjoy over their opponents. Meeks alone has 148 offensive rebounds, the second-most by a Tar Heel since the stat was recorded in 1995. He only needs four on Monday to surpass Tyler Hansbrough (151 in 2008).

But one suspects Kennedy will be fine coming up just short of the record, just so long as the Tar Heels don’t come up just short of a championship this time.

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