Scott Fowler

Kennedy Meeks will make UNC lot tougher this season

North Carolina did to Davidson what it will do to a lot of teams this season, whipping the Wildcats, 90-72, in Time Warner Cable Arena Saturday afternoon.

The crowd of 11,113 covered about 60 percent of the arena and was split evenly between Carolina blue and Davidson red. But the best player on the floor clearly belonged to UNC – big man Kennedy Meeks, making a triumphant homecoming – and so did most of the athleticism.

“They come at you in waves,” Davidson coach Bob McKillop said of the Tar Heels. And while Davidson withstood many of them, eventually the Wildcats were knocked down and got a mouthful of salt water.

Remember that old Denny Green rant? When Green was the coach of the Arizona Cardinals in 2006, he went on a postgame diatribe about the Chicago Bears, which was well known for the line: “They are who we thought they were!”

That line went for the Tar Heels and Davidson Saturday. They both were who we thought they were.

North Carolina (3-0) was far bigger, much quicker and worked the ball inside first. Davidson (2-1) had more 3-point shooters and ran its offense almost entirely at the perimeter, taking 36 3-point shots but making only 11.

The Tar Heels’ aggressive man-to-man “blew us off our spots,” said Davidson guard Tyler Kalinoski, forcing the Wildcats to start their offense some 30 feet from the basket. Since Davidson really can’t figure out how to score inside yet against a team like UNC, the Tar Heels’ “best offense was their defense,” as McKillop said.

To have a real chance, Davidson needed someone like guard Brian Sullivan to sizzle. He had 33 points in last year’s game, in which Davidson had a chance at the upset in regulation, only to lose in overtime.

But Sullivan went 2-for-10 in this one and 0-for-8 beyond the arc. McKillop said after Sullivan had a couple of his early shots blocked that “I thought it sort of got to him.” It sure looked like it. Only big man Peyton Aldridge (25 points) was very effective on offense for the Wildcats, mostly due to his six 3-pointers.

North Carolina is No. 6 in both major polls for a lot of reasons, and several of them are really tall. Meeks got pulled out of the game by an angry Roy Williams less than three minutes in – “Play or sit,” Williams told him – and was fantastic after that.

The former West Charlotte star had 19 points and 12 rebounds. At 270 pounds instead of the 319 he reported to Chapel Hill carrying as a freshman, Meeks now is fast enough to make a full-court steal and dunk like he did on Saturday. He can and did hold his own on either end of a monster outlet pass.

Freshman wing Justin Jackson (18 points, four assists) also looked like a star for UNC. The Tar Heels blocked nine shots and altered a lot more of them.

The fact that the Wildcats struggled to stop a more athletic team is likely a preview of a number of Atlantic 10 losses to come. This will be Davidson’s first season in that league, where the basketball is played above the rim a lot more than it is in the Southern Conference. There will be a major adjustment period.

North Carolina wasn’t perfect, either. It’s good for the Tar Heels that the game at Kentucky doesn’t come until Dec. 3th. The Tar Heels still make some bad decisions. But the balance that Williams has with this squad is superb, and it certainly is capable of winning the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas next week.

This game was scheduled in Charlotte in part because Hornets owner Michael Jordan had asked Williams to play a game in Charlotte at the Hornets’ home. Davidson last beat UNC in the troubled Matt Doherty era, in 2001. The series is long-running and very lopsided. Davidson is 4-36 over the last 40.

Ultimately, Saturday played out about like many games in the series have. Favored by 14, North Carolina won by 18. Both teams showed some promise. But if the smaller Meeks keeps playing like that, the Tar Heels may be able to do something really big.