All eyes were on sophomore forward Kennedy Meeks during open practice Wednesday afternoon, a day before the fourth-seeded North Carolina men’s basketball team faces West Region No. 1 seed Wisconsin (33-3, 16-2 Big Ten) in the Sweet 16 on Thursday.
But the flood of media attention and curiosity since Meeks sprained his left knee in UNC’s third round win over Arkansas on Saturday hasn’t produced the answer everyone is seeking. Meeks’ status for the Wisconsin game remains unknown.
“We don’t know anything about Kennedy,” confirmed Coach Roy Williams after the open practice. “This morning he did some contact on a limited basis for the first time.”
In open practice, Meeks went up and down the court with comfort and ease.
“Whatever I have to do to help me get back on the court,” Meeks said after saying he feels 75 to 80 percent healthy.
His teammates have remained cautious. Early in the afternoon, Meeks asked junior forward Joel James if he could post him up. James stopped, looked at his teammate’s sturdy black knee brace and responded with a quick, “Nah.” But Meeks backed him down anyway before making a move he finished off with a turnaround jumper.
“That’s the last thing we need: for him to hurt himself again because he’s a vital part of our team,” James said.
This season, Meeks has made 31 starts while averaging 11.6 points and 7.4 rebounds a game. He’s also been tasked with guarding some of the best opposing big men UNC has faced — from freshman Duke center and ACC Player of the Year Jahlil Okafor to Arkansas forward and SEC Player of the Year Bobby Portis.
Against Wisconsin, the big man UNC (26-11, 11-7 ACC) will face is Naismith Trophy finalist Frank Kaminsky, who leads Wisconsin in nearly every major statistical category.
For sophomore forward Isaiah Hicks, defending the versatile Kaminsky will be a group effort regardless of Meeks’ status.
“We have to get ready no matter what,” Hicks said. “With Kennedy, without.”
If it were up to Meeks, he’d face Kaminsky and the Badgers.
“But ultimately, it’s coach’s decision, and I can’t go against him,” he said.
On the eve of the Sweet 16, the focus shifts to Williams to make that decision.
“If there is swelling or any pain tonight, we won’t play him,” he said. “If there’s not, we’ll probably make the decision during warmups tomorrow.”