The day before North Carolina’s 78-58 victory against Wofford on Wednesday night, UNC coach Roy Williams left his team alone during a film review session, and left after what he’d seen had infuriated him.
The Tar Heels had gathered on Tuesday to review their win over Fairfield on Sunday night. They were watching plays in which UNC had struggled – lack-of-effort plays, others when something went wrong – and finally Williams had seen enough. He left the room.
“He’s done that before,” Brice Johnson, the senior forward, said after Wednesday’s game“But this time it was pretty bad. He was really mad at us.”
And mad, in particular, at both Johnson and Kennedy Meeks, UNC’s starting forwards. Williams, it seems, is constantly demanding more out of both.
More effort. More energy. More production – both when it comes to parts of the game that find their way into a box score, like points and rebounds, and parts that don’t, like screens and hustle plays. And so there Williams was, again, trying to send a message to Meeks and Johnson.
Williams’ walk-out, Meeks said on Wednesday, was a sign “that he’s sick and tired of me and Brice being mediocre.”
“He said that to us yesterday,” Meeks said. “It kind of hurt”
There was a verbal component, too, to Williams’ lesson.
“He told us that we’re mediocre,” Meeks said, “and (that) we’re going to be one-arm swingers – trash men – if we don’t get ourselves together.”
For one game, at least, Williams’ actions and words sunk in, and Johnson and Meeks played with a level of consistent inspiration, and production, that they’d lacked during the Tar Heels’ first two games. Against under-sized Wofford, Johnson and Meeks often had their way on the inside.
Johnson finished with 16 points, 14 rebounds and two blocked shots. Meeks finished with 16 points, eight rebounds, one steal and one blocked shot.
There were still moments that bothered Williams. Early on, for instance, Johnson and Meeks both settled at times for outside shots. Overall, though, their combined performance was one Williams had been waiting to see, and one that’s a positive development for UNC’s early-season progression.
“I thought that Kennedy and Brice were better,” Williams said, one day after trying to motivate them to do more.
Praise is often slow to flow from Williams to his big men. For three years now he has pushed Johnson to play with more intensity. For two years now Williams has been waiting to see Meeks realize his potential.
It’s difficult to envision the Tar Heels becoming the team they’re capable of being unless Johnson and Meeks play to their potential. Which is what might have prompted Williams to walk out of the film session after seeing Johnson and Meeks playing so uninspired against Fairfield on Sunday.
“I was trotting back on defense a few times last game and he really got upset with us yesterday about that,” Johnson said.
Before the game against Wofford, Meeks said, he and Johnson shared a short conversation. They kept it simple.
They spoke, Meeks said, “about giving that extra effort for coach and our teammates, because they need it.”
“We both can be big-time players for our program so we’re both trying to be that,” Meeks said.
Johnson and Meeks, and sophomore point guard Joel Berry, who also finished with 16 points, were the highlights of a game in which UNC, again, had difficulty pulling away. Wofford trailed by four points with 15 minutes to play and by three with 13½ minutes remaining.
The Tar Heels, though, slowly extended their lead during the final 10 minutes – a period in which Johnson and Meeks, again, asserted themselves. Overall UNC outscored Wofford, an NCAA tournament team a season ago that was picked to finish second in the Southern Conference, 50-18 in the paint.
UNC knew it had a size advantage on the inside, and a talent advantage, but the Tar Heels didn’t know how Johnson and Meeks would respond to their first significant challenge of the season. Then they went and answered.