A photo caption incorrectly identified the basketball player standing to the left of UNCs Kennedy Meeks as J.P. Tokoto. The player was Brice Johnson.
SAN ANTONIO - Inside the North Carolina locker room on Saturday, Kennedy Meeks sat alone in front of his stall while people with the cameras and microphones rushed past to talk to James Michael McAdoo and others.
Meeks, the freshman forward from Charlotte, is a starter for the Tar Heels but he doesnt receive the most attention. Thats fine by him. Even he didnt know how much his success has meant to his team.
Asked to name the Tar Heels record when he scores in double figures, Meeks said he couldnt. He smiled, inquiring.
Told that North Carolina has won 10 of 11 games when Meeks scores at least 10 points, he smiled again.
I didnt know, he said with a laugh. I really didnt. Honestly I didnt know that.
Meeks sounded a bit embarrassed, like maybe he should have known. One of those double-figure scoring games came on Friday night, when he scored 12 points during the Tar Heels 79-77 victory against Providence.
The win sent North Carolina to the East Regional quarterfinals, where on Sunday the sixth-seeded Tar Heels play against No. 3 Iowa State. The analysts will talk about the usual things before the game: whether UNC can make its free throws; whether it can rebound as well as it did on Friday; whether it plays with urgency.
Those variables have all been important for the Tar Heels. Meeks play, though, has also proven to be a sound indicator of the Tar Heels success.
North Carolina is 13-2 when he scores at least eight points. The Tar Heels are 11-7 when he doesnt.
Perhaps its oversimplified to measure the Tar Heels wins and losses through Meeks scoring. North Carolina has won when he has gone scoreless though it lost against Syracuse and Duke when he scored no points and one of Meeks most productive games came during a defeat at Virginia in early January.
Still, though, the better Meeks is the more active, the more aggressive the better the Tar Heels seem to be.
When we get multiple guys in double figures, were a lot better than when we have to rely on myself or James Michael (McAdoo) to score all the points, Marcus Paige, the sophomore guard, said on Saturday. Because then teams can key on us and switch their defense and make it harder.
Paige said he often pays attention to how many points Meeks and J.P. Tokoto, the sophomore forward, are scoring. If theyre in double-figures, Paige said, I think we have a good chance of winning.
Meeks contribution could be especially important on Sunday against Iowa State and its height-deprived, depleted frontcourt. The Cyclones defeated N.C. Central on Friday night, but in the process Georges Niang, their sophomore forward who averages 16.7 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, suffered a broken foot.
Niang will miss the rest of the season. At 6 foot 7, he was Iowa States tallest starter.
The 6-foot-9 Meeks, the 6-foot-9 McAdoo and the 6-foot-10 Brice Johnson, UNCs sophomore forward, will have a significant size advantage against Iowa State, though that might mean less against the Cyclones given their frenetic, fast-paced playing style.
The Cyclones rank 13th nationally in possessions per game and at times Meeks, who works to manage his weight and become better conditioned, has struggled to keep up in those games. A virus limited Meeks toward the end of the regular season, and in the five games before Friday, he scored a combined 16 points.
His performance against Providence 12 points and five rebounds in 13 minutes was reminiscent of some of the games he had earlier this season. A former standout at West Charlotte High, Meeks was instrumental in victories against Lousiville and Michigan State, and with a season-high 23 points he led North Carolina to a victory at Florida State.
I think that just gives other teams somebody else to worry about, Meeks said of when he plays well. I feel like the starting five Marcus, Mac, J.P., (Leslie McDonald) the games that they play well, I think thats when everything flows together for us a team. And then of course it wouldnt hurt to add one more.
The five games before the NCAA tournament were a struggle for Meeks. He said on Saturday that his confidence suffered and he became discouraged.
McAdoo could relate. He went through similar challenges his freshman season.
Being a freshman, I remember when things werent really going well as far as shots werent going in, its really hard not to get down on yourself, McAdoo said. But I think (confidence) is just huge for him and just how he plays and how well the team does.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams said on Saturday that he wasnt sure how Niangs injury would affect the Tar Heels strategy. He wasnt sure what Iowa State would do to compensate for the loss, or how UNC might try to exploit what appears to be a weakness in the Cyclones frontcourt.
Whatever the Tar Heels plans, Meeks is likely to play a prominent role, or at least have a chance to do so. McAdoo, the junior forward, also didnt know how successful North Carolina has been when Meeks plays well.
But, McAdoo said on Saturday, hopefully he scores in double figures tomorrow.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter