JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Kennedy Meeks paused and then reiterated himself when reporters struggled to believe him.
"Yeah," he said, "I think he's the best one."
Meeks, a sophomore forward on the North Carolina men's basketball team, nearly stunned reporters Friday afternoon when he told them it would be Bobby Portis, the sophomore forward out of Arkansas, that would end up being the best player he's guarded this year. Not ACC Freshman and Player of the Year Jahlil Okafor out of Duke. Not Syracuse standout Rakeem Christmas, and not Miami 7-footer Tonye Jekiri.
On Saturday night, when the fourth-seeded Tar Heels take on the fifth-seeded Razorbacks at 8:40 p.m., Portis will be Meeks' responsibility, and it could be his biggest test yet.
Portis was named the SEC Player of the Year and is the the Razorbacks' leading scorer and rebounder despite averaging just 29.8 minutes per game. In fewer than 30 minutes per game, he averages 17.5 points and 8.8 rebounds.
"He’s the player of the year in their conference. When you look at their conference, you think someone on Kentucky’s team would have won but he won it," junior forward Brice Johnson said. "He had a great season. He’s probably going to average a double-double, so it’s gonna be a very intense game for us.
UNC advances to the next round from a two-point win over Harvard Thursday night, despite a late-game Crimson rally. Arkansas then beat Wofford by three points in the next game. Both Harvard and Wofford missed jumpers at the buzzer that would have either won or forced overtime, respectively.
A UNC victory would send the Tar Heels to Los Angeles next week for the Sweet 16, a feat no current starter has achieved. In 2012, Desmond Hubert, Jackson Simmons and Stilman White all made it to the Elite 8 as freshmen, but since then, UNC hasn't advanced past the first weekend of play.
"I broke down myself ... it hurt a great deal. We thought we'd be able to win," said Johnson of UNC's third-round loss to Iowa State last season in San Antonio. "I think about it all the time.
So does junior guard Marcus Paige.
"I’ve thought about that a lot coming into the tournament and now that we’re in the tournament, I’ve thought about it some more," he said. "It’s a hurdle that we have to get over and it’s very important. It’s arguably the biggest game of our careers."
Coach Roy Williams said the Tar Heels had a very effective, positive practice Friday morning, but added that he knows how dangerous Arkansas can be.
The Razorbacks boast a 27-8 record and average 77.4 points per game.
"You should respect everyone, fear no one. That's what I tell (the players) all the time," Williams said. "But they also saw how aggressive those clips were on TV about Arkansas and know that a little bit.
"I've seen Arkansas play. They're scary. They really are."
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