The “number one thing” on the North Carolina scouting report entering its game Sunday night against Robert Morris, Tar Heels point guard Marcus Paige said, was to exploit the Colonials’ spread-out zone, work the ball inside and create scoring chances in the post, where UNC had a clear size advantage.
The Tar Heels did that often – and made it look easy most of the time – during a 103-59 victory that was significantly smoother than their sloppy season-opening victory against N.C. Central on Friday night. Not all things came easily for UNC (2-0) on Sunday at the Smith Center but a lot of them did.
Particularly on the inside, where 6-foot-9 forwards Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson complemented each other and, sometimes, set each other up for easy points. In 21 minutes, Johnson finished with 23 points and eight rebounds and Meeks, the Charlotte native who played 17 minutes, finished with 21 points and 12 rebounds.
Far greater challenges await the Tar Heels but for one night, at least, Johnson and Meeks provided the kinds of performances Williams has been seeking – the kind he talked about during the preseason when he went on, repeatedly, about his desire for someone in the frontcourt to become a “big-time player.”
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He’ll take what happened on Sunday.
“What we’ve got to do is see that over the course of the season,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said after he watched UNC outscore Robert Morris 60-18 in the paint. “I thought last year both of those guys had some good games – some really good games, every now and then.
“But it’s got to be on a consistent basis, like Tyler Zeller and John Henson and Tyler Hansbrough, Sean May – those guys (gave) it to you every night.”
That’s the challenge for Johnson, who has shown considerable offensive potential at UNC, and Meeks, who played well at times last season but appeared overwhelmed in others. In some ways they are the opposite of each other – Johnson has had to gain weight in college and Meeks has lost 50 pounds in the past year or so – but they complement each other well, too.
Especially on the offensive end. Meeks is known for his passing, particularly his outlet passing, but it was Johnson, who finished with three assists, who showed off an improved passing touch on Sunday.
“He knows how to pass it to me and I know how to pass it to him,” Johnson said of Meeks. “… I guess it just comes with experience of me and him just being there a lot last year, with James Michael (McAdoo) in foul trouble in some games, and me and him being in there a lot together.”
Johnson said he and Meeks began to develop on-court chemistry early last season, when UNC played a pair of games in Connecticut against Richmond and Louisville, then the defending national champion. Their bond increased during summer workouts and preseason practices and, yes, Johnson said, he heard plenty from Williams about the need to become a consistently productive player in the post.
Meeks heard it often, too.
“Nights like this is just – me and Kennedy need to play like that every night,” Johnson said.
It won’t only be as simple as it was on Sunday, though. UNC was the “more gifted team,” as Williams likes to say, and Robert Morris (0-2) was at a disadvantage in every aspect – skill and size included.
But the Tar Heels did what good teams should do against over-matched competition. They led 53-35 at halftime and they led by at least 21 points after Paige, who finished with 15 points, made a 3-pointer on UNC’s first possession of the second half.
The Tar Heels had their issues against a zone defense on Friday night against N.C. Central but, outside of a few lapses in the first half, UNC executed much more efficiently against Robert Morris’ zone. UNC spread the Colonials out, creating driving lanes, and exploited its advantage on the inside.
The Tar Heels finished with 29 assists on their 36 made field goals – and Johnson (10-for-15 from the field) and Meeks (6-for-7) accounted for nearly half of those.
“That’s one of our keys, I think, to our season, is getting Brice and Kennedy to score consistently,” Paige said. “Tonight you saw that they’re capable of it. I mean, it’s game two so we still have a lot to go. But they’ve shown that they can do it, and they’re willing to do it.
“So that’s big for our team and if they can keep it up.”