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UNC faces tall task, in more ways than one, against Florida State

UNC senior forward Kennedy Meeks (left, No. 3) will likely play an especially important role on Saturday against Florida State amid the absence of freshman forward Tony Bradley.
UNC senior forward Kennedy Meeks (left, No. 3) will likely play an especially important role on Saturday against Florida State amid the absence of freshman forward Tony Bradley. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Afterward in the North Carolina locker room, Tony Bradley didn't remember some of the details. Already the moment had become fuzzy, his fall on Wednesday at Wake Forest, where he hit his head, hard, on the court. The collision left him with a concussion.

Before the Tar Heels practiced on Thursday, UNC coach Roy Williams spoke briefly with Bradley. The Tar Heels' freshman forward stood there, Williams said, and “said he felt better and talked about how it happened and the whole bit.”

Now Bradley will need to recover. He won't play on Saturday against Florida State, and his absence makes the task ahead of the Tar Heels significantly more difficult. Even at full strength and fully healthy, it would have been difficult enough to prepare for the Seminoles.

They're the tallest team in the ACC, according to kenpom.com, what with the 7-foot-1 Michael Ojo starting, the 7-foot-4 Christ Koumadje coming off the bench and the 6-foot-10 freshman forward Jonathan Isaac averaging 12.1 points per game.

And now UNC will encounter all of that size without the 6-foot-11 Bradley, who is the tallest player on Williams' roster. Regardless, Florida State's “length is still the same thing,” Williams said on Friday.

“It’s just we don’t have one of the weapons,” he said. “So that makes it more difficult. Someway, somehow they’ve still got to play because they’re not going to let us cancel the game since Tony’s not playing.”

Bradley isn't a starter for the Tar Heels but he has averaged about 15 minutes per game. They have been valuable minutes, ones filled with production on both ends. Bradley played but six minutes at Wake Forest on Wednesday but still earned the team’s defensive player of the game award.

Bradley's absence on Saturday will leave the Tar Heels with only two traditional post players, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks, who both start. The number jumps to three with the inclusion of the 6-foot-8 Luke Maye, but he sometimes roams the perimeter, as well, and has become a capable 3-point shooter.

Without Bradley, UNC against Florida State will be especially reliant on the 6-foot-10 Meeks and the 6-foot-9 Hicks. Both Hicks and Meeks, who finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds at Wake Forest, will need to avoid foul trouble and remain on the court.

And yet Williams has another option, too: He could choose to go small.

It's an option that exists thanks to Theo Pinson, the versatile 6-foot-6 forward who returned last weekend after missing UNC's first 16 games because of a broken foot. Pinson can play a range of positions and if he plays power forward on Saturday, the Tar Heels would become more nimble, and perhaps more difficult to defend.

Williams said “it's not our plan to go small right off the bat.” Yet he didn't discount the possibility of using a small lineup, either, if the circumstances presented themselves.

“I don't know that I would say I anticipate it, but it tends to be reasonable because we have one less (big) guy,” Williams said. “And I'm not going in with saying, 'OK, we're going to play a small lineup.' I'm going in planning that we're going to play Kennedy and Isaiah and Luke, and then if everybody is in foul trouble like we were the other night at Wake Forest, we'll have to make some other moves.”

Though the Tar Heels lost their conference opener at Georgia Tech on Dec. 31 this, on Saturday, is their first significant test against a team with the potential to win the ACC. Florida State, picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the conference, will enter the Smith Center on Saturday with more momentum than any team in the league.

Indeed, the Seminoles have their size. Ojo and Isaac and all the rest.

“That's what everybody talks about when you talk about FSU,” said Kenny Williams, the Tar Heels' sophomore guard.

But Florida State is more than just height and length. Dwayne Bacon, the 6-foot-7 sophomore wing forward who is leading Florida State with a little more than 20 points per game in four ACC games, has made an early case for ACC Player of the Year honors. UNC fans, meanwhile, likely remember the show Xavier Rathan-Mayes provided at the Smith Center two years ago.

“Rathan-Mayes scores 60 every time he plays us,” Roy Williams said.

That was an exaggeration but not necessarily too hyperbolic of one. Rathan-Mayes scored 35 points against the Tar Heels two years ago, during his freshman season, and 30 a year ago in Tallahassee, Fla.

UNC won both of those games, and if it replicates that overall success on Saturday then the Tar Heels will take a significant step toward their goal of winning the ACCs regular-season championship. That, though, will be a tall task both in the literal and figurative sense.

The Seminoles, who are ninth in the Associated Press top 25 poll, are as highly-ranked as they've been since the 1992-93 season. UNC is without one of its most important frontcourt players. The pace on Saturday is likely to be frenetic, up and down – the kind Roy Williams appreciates.

“It's really a fun team to watch,” he said of the Seminoles at one point on Friday.

Now comes the less fun part, at least for Williams and his players: playing against them.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

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