by Emily Fedewa, GoHeels.com
CHAPEL HILL -- Over his 10 years with the Tar Heels, head coach Roy Williams has typically favored a bigger line-up — highlighted by the likes of Sean May, Tyler Hansbrough and so many others.
Last year, though, Williams was forced to go much smaller, in part because of the explosive shooting of guard P.J. Hairston, but also due to the lack of experienced or reliable big men in the post. Tar Heel big men struggled to hold their own on the inside during the 2012-13 season.
This year has brought improvement to the Carolina frontcourt, giving much needed power and energy in the paint to a team that remains unsure of the fate of two of its best shooters.
But the biggest addition on the inside for the Tar Heels so far this season has been freshman Kennedy Meeks.
"Last year, we struggled offensively because at times we didn't really have a guy we could throw it into all the time and get a basket," sophomore guard Marcus Paige said. "And Kennedy is great; he takes care of the ball, he makes good decisions in the post, and he can score, so those things help."
After being told by Williams that he was playing like the worst player on the planet following a win against Richmond in the first round of the Hall of Fame Tipoff Tournament, Meeks knew he was capable of more.
Just a day after the one-point, three-rebound performance, Meeks was one of the biggest factors in the upset over then-No. 3 Louisville. The freshman tallied 13 points off 5 for 6 shooting, 12 rebounds, and a team-high seven assists.
"I always expected nothing but the best from me," Meeks said. "I feel like I'm maintaining my goals right now. But, of course, I can get better."
He did just that a week and a half later when UNC traveled to the Breslin Center to play Michigan State — at that point, the No. 1 team in the country.
Tom Izzo has consistently developed teams that are tough in the paint and are known for their rebounding, but the Tar Heels dominated the inside, out-rebounding the Spartans 49-38. Meeks tallied seven of those — second-most on the team behind J.P. Tokoto's 10 — while also scoring a career-high 15 points.
"I think his confidence is slowly growing because he's getting the experience, especially in some big-time games early in the year," Paige said.
That confidence showed again in Sunday's win over UNC-Greensboro - a game that many, including Williams, worried would be another letdown after a big win in a roller coaster start to the season.
That letdown didn't come though, as the Tar Heels won the game handily 81-50 with Meeks once again ending just shy of a double-double with 12 points and a team-high eight rebounds.
Meeks was named the ACC Rookie of the Week on Monday for his strong week.
The freshman said he is happy to put points on the board, but he thinks rebounding is even more important and he's trying to focus on that as much as he can.
"Rebounding is probably one of the most important things in basketball — getting the rebound, looking for teammates, getting easy buckets in transition," Meeks said. "I would prefer to rebound than score any day. I think it helps."
Even with his strength in the post, Meeks knows, as do his coaches and teammates, that he's just a freshman and there's a lot of room for improvement with so much of the season left.
Williams and Paige point to the forward's defensive effort and his physique as areas that are still developing.
"He's got to keep working on his body because he needs to be explosive, and he's not explosive in there," Williams said. "But, offensively, he really helps us."
Despite the areas that Meeks is still refining, he's shown that he has the ability and power to be on the level of the dominating bigs of the Williams era — and that could be huge for a UNC team that is still unsure of its identity.
"I think I'm doing pretty well — I mean there's always room for improvement," Meeks said. "But I feel like the opportunity is in front of me, it's up to me to take it."