Meeks snaps out of freshman doldrums

Center Kennedy Meeks knows what it feels like to hit the “freshman wall,” and now he knows what it feels like to work through it.

The Charlotte native is again providing North Carolina a strong low-post presence it sorely needs.

“Last year we had such great shooters, and if we’d had an inside scoring threat then it would’ve been even better than it was,” UNC coach Roy Williams said on his radio show. “This year we need to have that, and I think so far Kennedy’s the best at it and James Michael (McAdoo) and Brice (Johnson) are doing a better job going to the basket as well.”

Meeks looked like a budding superstar in November when he had arguably his best game of the season against Louisville with 13 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists. When he followed that two games later with 15 points and seven rebounds at Michigan State, he appeared to be blossoming into one of the Heels’ best players.

But, as freshmen tend to do, Meeks hit a five-game stretch where he struggled to find consistency. From the Northern Kentucky game on Dec. 27 to the Syracuse game on Jan. 11, he averaged just 3.2 points per game and made just 5 of 17 field-goal attempts.

“Since I've been here I think I’ve been through a lot as far as being down sometimes, being up sometimes, but I just have to fight through it,” Meeks said. “My teammates encouraged me even when I was hitting that wall just to keep playing, keep my head up, don’t worry about it and just come back strong next game.”

And come back strong he has. Meeks has scored double figures in the last three games -- his longest streak of the season. It all started when Meeks replaced McAdoo in the lineup against Boston College because Williams felt his post players kept fading away from the basket instead of going up strong.

Williams gave Meeks special instructions to make it clear how he needed to play.

“I took James Michael out and put Kennedy in and, well, I threatened him -- I was trying to think of a nice way to say it,” Williams said. “I told him if he got the ball and didn’t take it to the basket -- I didn’t say I was going to kill him or anything like that -- but if you get the ball and you don’t take the ball to the basket, then just come over here and sit down. We’ve got to be more aggressive and he did that.”

And he’s stayed aggressive. Meeks has averaged 12 points and 7.7 rebounds over the past three games and is shooting 65.2 percent from the field (15 of 23) over that stretch.

“Now I got to get him to make just one pump fake instead of 17 and go ahead to get the ball up on the board,” Williams said.

Meeks made just his third start of the season against Clemson and responded with 11 points and eight rebounds. But it’s his improved defensive effort that could keep him in the starting lineup -- he tied a career high with three blocked shots against the Tigers.

“We’ve got to get him to work much, much harder defensively. I think he’s tried much harder defensively the last, I don’t know, two to four games,” Williams said. “I think at Syracuse he was completely out of it, but since then I think he’s tried much, much harder defensively and I think that’s helped him, too.”