North Carolina

Williams, UNC wait for 'big-time' player to emerge in front court

Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks have provided glimpses of what North Carolina coach Roy Williams hoped he’d often see this season. Williams, though, is still waiting.

Waiting for Johnson and Meeks to become more consistent. Waiting, and hoping, for them to become the “big-time” players Williams often spoke about before the season began.

“You can look at the stats and look at the results, they’re not there,” said Williams, whose team plays No. 12 Ohio State on Saturday in Chicago. “I hope it’s in my lifetime. Like I said the other night, I hope it’s this year. But they’re not there.

“But they’ll have moments.”

There have been those. Such as when Johnson, the 6-foot-9 junior forward, scored 19 points and had 17 rebounds in a lopsided victory against East Carolina. Or when Meeks, the 6-foot-9 sophomore forward, finished with 18 points – and made eight of his nine shots from the field – in the Tar Heels’ victory against UNC-Greensboro earlier this week.

Those moments, though, have come amid others when Johnson and Meeks have struggled to assert themselves. Some of their best games, as Williams noted, have come against some of the less challenging teams UNC has played.

And in the Tar Heels’ three losses, especially, Johnson and Meeks haven’t necessarily played well together. Johnson, for instance, scored 15 points and was assertive early in UNC’s recent defeat at Kentucky, while Meeks was quieter. It was the opposite during a loss against Iowa.

“Brice had 19 and 17 against ECU, and I love (ECU coach) Jeff (Lebo), but they weren’t as gifted as we are,” Williams said. “If he gets 19 and 17 (against Ohio State) and then does it again two or three games in the ACC, I’ll be standing up on top of this daggum table.

Williams earlier this week spoke of getting mean – of coaching the way he used to coach during his days at Kansas. He probably wouldn’t mind if some of that meanness rubbed off on Johnson and Meeks.

Off the court, they’re both affable and quick to smile. On the court, their toughness has sometimes been questioned – as has the rest of the team’s.

Williams hoped UNC’s strength would be on the interior and, at times, it has been that way. Meeks, the Tar Heels’ leading scorer at 13.8 points per game, has made 65.1 percent of his shots from the field. Johnson, who’s averaging 11.3 points, kept the Tar Heels in the game early in that loss at No. 1 Kentucky.

Still, neither player has quite taken that next step – at least not yet. Johnson at times has been flustered by early foul trouble in games, and he has made it a priority to become mentally tougher. And Meeks, despite his efficiency and size, sometimes has had difficulty establishing himself.

He said on Thursday that he’s most focused on “being more explosive.”

“I think that’s something I need to key on a lot more,” said Meeks, who has lost about 50 pounds since he arrived at UNC in summer 2013. “Playing above the rim as much as I can. Because the more I do that, the easier it will come.”