McDonald, Meeks give UNC's starting five a lift
Before a game last month, North Carolina coach Roy Williams asked his three assistants what the starting lineup should be, and each one came back with a different answer.
There is much less debate now. The Tar Heels have won four straight games — all by double digits — since going to a lineup that includes shooting guard Leslie McDonald and center Kennedy Meeks.
UNC (15-7, 5-4) looks to continue its longest winning streak of the season today when it travels to Notre Dame (noon, WRAL).
“I like the fact that it does give us a little more scoring punch,” Williams said. “Kennedy’s been our best true inside low-post scorer, (and) Leslie has an ability to shoot the ball, so that gives us another shooter on the perimeter.”
McDonald is averaging 14 points and Meeks is posting 8.8 points and 7.8 rebounds since the new lineup went into effect. They replaced guard Nate Britt and center Joel James, who score 7.6 points a game combined. Guard Marcus Paige and forwards J.P. Tokoto and James Michael McAdoo have started every game this season.
The new starting five has been especially effective the past two games. The Tar Heels led 18-4 after eight minutes against N.C. State and led 19-3 after five minutes against Maryland — in both cases, the opponent never could overcome the initial deficit.
Coming off its final conference game against departing ACC member Maryland, UNC will now play its first conference game against newcomer Notre Dame. The Tar Heels will face the Fighting Irish (12-11, 3-7) for just the second time in 20 years today at the Purcell Pavilion.
“It’s completely different because I’ve had such a history with Maryland,” Williams said. “Now this is something completely new and I don’t really have any experiences to draw on, where Maryland I can remember hundreds of big-time games and experiences.”
While the Tar Heels lead the series 16-4, the most recent game was UNC’s 102-87 win in the final of the 2008 Maui Invitational, and the most recent game in South Bend was in 1994.
In January, Notre Dame won its first-ever ACC game at home against Duke but has since gone 2-7 in ACC play, with the only wins coming at home against the two worst teams in the league, Boston College and Virginia Tech.
The Fighting Irish have struggled without Jerian Grant, who averaged 19 points and 6.2 assists through 12 games but left school after the fall semester because of an academic issue.
Of course, UNC had to deal with the loss of its own star player when P.J. Hairston was dismissed from the team for NCAA violations.
“(Grant’s) numbers were awfully impressive and it’s very difficult to lose somebody that you’re really counting on,” Williams said. “We understand that ourselves.”
But the Tar Heels persevered through an inconsistent start, and now look to build on their winning streak before a difficult five-day stretch that has UNC hosting Duke on Wednesday and Pittsburgh (Feb. 15) before traveling to Florida State (Feb. 17).