(6) North Carolina vs. (3) Iowa State 5:15 p.m. (CBS)

UNC freshman Kennedy Meeks a key variable in NCAA tournament

acarter@newsobserver.comMarch 22, 2014 

  • No. 6 North Carolina vs. No. 3 Iowa State

    When: 5:15 p.m.

    Where: AT&T Center, San Antonio

    TV/Radio: WRAL/106.1-WRDU

    Projected starting lineups

    North Carolina (24-9)

    G Marcus Paige 17.5 ppg, 4.3 apg

    G Leslie McDonald 10.1 ppg, 2 rpg

    F J.P. Tokoto 9.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg

    F James Michael McAdoo 14.2 ppg, 6.8 rpg

    F Kennedy Meeks 7.3 ppg, 5.9 rpg

    Iowa State (27-7)

    G Monte Morris 6.4 ppg, 3.7 apg

    G DeAndre Kane 16.9 ppg, 6.7 rpg

    G Naz Long 6.9 ppg, 1.6 rpg

    F Melvin Ejim 18.1 ppg, 8.5 rpg

    F Dustin Hogue 10.9 ppg, 8.5 rpg

    North Carolina moves on if:

    It beats Iowa State at its own game and is the better team in transition, and if – sound familiar? – the Tar Heels rebound effectively. The Cyclones average nearly 73 possessions per game, and they play with the kind of speed that UNC coach Roy Williams wants out of his team. The Tar Heels like to run, and this is their chance. They’ll have a big size advantage on the inside, too, and they have to capitalize on that – especially with Iowa State forward Georges Niang (16.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg) out with a broken foot he suffered on Friday. There should be scoring opportunities inside for Kennedy Meeks, James Michael McAdoo and Brice Johnson.

    North Carolina goes home if:

    It doesn’t take advantage of its size and if it doesn’t have an answer for DeAndre Kane and Melvin Ejim, both of whom might just form the best tandem in the nation. Kane and Ejim are bound to get their points, but UNC might find it difficult to survive another show like the one Bryce Cotton, the Providence guard, put on during UNC’s narrow victory on Friday night. This will be Iowa State’s first game without Niang, and how well Iowa State compensates for that – and how well UNC is ready for the unknown – could decide whether the Tar Heels advance. Iowa State has also taken the ninth-most 3-point attempts in the nation. Six Iowa State players have made at least 33.6 percent of their 3-point attempts. If the Cyclones shoot well, UNC could enter the offseason.

A photo caption incorrectly identified the basketball player standing to the left of UNC’s 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 doesn’t receive the most attention. That’s fine by him. Even he didn’t 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 couldn’t. He smiled, inquiring.

Told that North Carolina has won 10 of 11 games when Meeks scores at least 10 points, he smiled again.

“I didn’t know,” he said with a laugh. “I really didn’t. Honestly – I didn’t 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 doesn’t.

Perhaps it’s 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, we’re 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 they’re 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 State’s tallest starter.

The 6-foot-9 Meeks, the 6-foot-9 McAdoo and the 6-foot-10 Brice Johnson, UNC’s 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 that’s when everything flows together for us a team. And then of course it wouldn’t 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 weren’t really going well as far as shots weren’t going in, it’s 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 wasn’t sure how Niang’s injury would affect the Tar Heels’ strategy. He wasn’t 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 didn’t 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

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service