UNC's success tied to its freshmen
North Carolina’s freshmen class of point guard Nate Britt, center Kennedy Meeks and small forward Isaiah Hicks has shown rapid improvement recently. Now comes a new challenge — the rigors of ACC play, which starts today when the No. 19 Tar Heels face Wake Forest at Joel Coliseum (8 p.m., ESPNU).
“They have no idea,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “All three of the freshmen … have had opportunities to get better, but it really is a big-time jump. I always say to kids, ‘You can’t come in there tiptoeing through the tulips. You’ve got to come in and plant your feet and be ready to make a stand.’ Hopefully those guys will do it right from the start.”
Britt has started every game this season and has been consistently solid on defense, but he has gotten better control of the offense lately. Britt has 18 assists to five turnovers in his past four games, compared to 21 assists and 20 turnovers in his first nine games.
Hicks was moved from power forward to small forward and struggled early on his new role, but the Oxford Webb product has shown more promise lately. In UNC’s last two games, Hicks won the coaches defensive player of the game award against Northern Kentucky and then scored a season-high seven points and had four rebounds in a season-high 17 minutes against UNC Wilmington.
“I think he’s getting more comfortable,” Williams said. “He’s nowhere near comfortable, but we’re asking him to do some things he’s never done.”
Meeks has already had some big-time moments against top opponents, recording 13 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists against Louisville and scoring a team-high 15 points at Michigan State.
His play earned him the start against UNCW in place of Joel James, who is doubtful for today’s game with a sprained knee. The Charlotte native then had his worst game, going scoreless for the first time and committing four turnovers after recording seven total in the first 12 games.
“I’m not satisfied, by any means, but I think he’s on the right road,” Williams said.
Meeks’ lack of consistency has been a team-wide problem. The Tar Heels (10-3) have beaten the top three teams in their schedule (Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky) but have also played down to the level of competition at times. UNC has losses to Belmont and Alabama-Birmingham and needed overtime to beat Davidson.
“Sometimes we’ve been a really good rebounding team and sometimes we’ve been a sorry rebounding team,” Williams said. “Sometimes we’ve been extremely unselfish and other times we’ve been extremely selfish.
“I’d say the biggest thing that I’ve been displeased with is the consistency of our attention and sometimes even our effort. But I’ve got hope. I really do.”
The Tar Heels can’t afford another subpar effort against Wake Forest (10-3), which beat No. 2 Miami and No. 19 N.C. State at home last year and had a lead against No. 5 Duke with about three minutes left before losing by five. The Demon Deacons have gone 8-0 at home so far this season, though none of those games were against ranked opponents.
Junior power forward James Michael McAdoo was the only current Tar Heel who played the last time these teams met at Joel Coliseum two years ago.
“The atmosphere was pretty dead, but they’ve gotten a lot better and they’re a really good team, so definitely we have to be prepared not just for their team but for the atmosphere,” McAdoo said.
McAdoo said that the biggest key for the freshmen as they enter ACC play is not to overthink things or feel like they need to do too much.
“The team didn’t need me to have a million points and a million rebounds,” McAdoo said. “When they’re out there, like Coach always says, just be productive. It might not always show up in the stat book, but just not turning the ball over and executing and just playing the defense, which isn’t that hard to do.”
But on a team in which McAdoo and senior Leslie McDonald are the only upperclassmen, the Tar Heels will need the freshmen to produce if they want to compete for the ACC title.
“They realize that this team’s success is going to fall at least partly on them,” McAdoo said.