CAROLINA: Freshman Trio Debuts
by Robbi Pickeral
Kennedy Meeks—like his fellow classmates Nate Britt and Isaiah Hicks—had not been allowed to talk to the media prior to Friday night. As per North Carolina basketball tradition, freshmen lips are officially locked once they arrive on campus until after they play in their first regular-season game.
But as you watched the smiling big man run out of the tunnel against Oakland, lead the pre-tipoff "Jump Around" dance and then aggressively score his first collegiate bucket just 90 seconds after he checked into his first collegiate game, you could sense the personality that was to come. "Nate's more conservative, I think Isaiah's a little bit shy,'' said the 6-foot-9, now 280-pound center from Charlotte. "...I'm more of an extrovert."
On and off the court, it seems.
Britt, who became the fifth freshman point guard to start a first game for UNC since 2003, was solid, recording four points, three assists and three turnovers in 22 minutes. "I was nervous,'' said the 5-11 ballhandler, "but going forward, now that the first [game] is behind me, I think I'll be fine."
The 6-8 Hicks, coming off the bench, showed plenty of athletic potential, scoring his only bucket on a dunk and pulling down five rebounds in 11 minutes. "I've always wanted to be a Tar Heel, and I always wanted my moment to come...and it was overwhelming, but exciting, too," he said.
But of the trio, it was hard not to keep your eyes (or, later, ears) fastened on Meeks, a wide-bodied center from Charlotte who has lost 40 pounds since July and could help fill a great big hole in the Tar Heels' middle. "I think I could have rebounded a lot better,'' Meeks said, critiquing his performance after the 84-61 win. "But as far as offense, I think I did good."
Some freshman trend toward tentativeness early on, focusing on getting a feel for playing in front of thousands of Smith Center fans rather than making an impact. But not this particular freshman.
Before tipoff, Meeks preceded suit-clad senior Leslie McDonald in the traditional pre-game gyration/dance to the tune from House of Pain, jumping around in front of his bench and flailing his arms in moves he later called the "K-Meeks Special." (No, he did not practice, he said; yes, he will likely do it again.)
He was still smiling and energized with 16:05 left, when he checked into the game. And it took him less than two minutes to grab a rebound, record an assist, make a short jumper and convert two free throws.
Jitters? What jitters?
"That just me being me. It's my personality [to be aggressive],'' Meeks said. "It's a chance for me to share who I am with the fans, coaches. They already know that, the team, coaches-but it's just a way for me to share with the fans, that I really love the school and I love playing basketball...And I'm here to help us win." No matter the amount of work.
Meeks said he was "disappointed in myself" in July, when his weight had ballooned to nearly 320 pounds. But by working with strength coach Jonas Sahratian and cutting the carbs (included his beloved pizza), he regained his confidence as he shed weight. His vertical jump has increased, as has his ability to keep up with coach Roy Williams' grueling pace.
"I think he's seeing the benefits of it himself,'' Williams said last week. "The first part of what you lose is a lot easier than the last part of what you need to lose...I just want him to be able to play effectively. He's got to be more explosive and got to be able to run."
Friday, Meeks showed he is getting there. He finished with 10 points and five rebounds, playing one fewer minute (13) than sophomore starter Joel James (four points, eight rebounds, 14 minutes).
Williams called the duo's performance "solid"—perhaps a positive sign for a team that couldn't settle on a center last year, and eventually had to move to a smaller four-guard starting lineup.
Meeks said it was a good start, but he's still got a lot to learn. Good thing it's his personality to do so. "I wasn't nervous for this game,'' he said, grinning. "I was hyped . . . That's just who I am."