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Blue in the Face (2016 Men’s Final Four coverage)

After cutting down the nets in Philadelphia, Kennedy Meeks and the Tar Heels will participate in the Final Four. The 19 appearances in the national semifinals is more than any other D-1 school. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
After cutting down the nets in Philadelphia, Kennedy Meeks and the Tar Heels are in Houston for the Final Four. Carolina is making its 19th appearance in the national semifinals, more than any other D-1 school. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Hang around the North Carolina locker room long enough and you’ll know that when you hear the letters “ASAP” thrown around, it’s in reference to junior forward Kennedy Meeks, whose nickname is just that, though it’s a different take on the much-used acronym.

“Always Strive and Prosper.”

ASAP has also been a familiar refrain from North Carolina basketball supporters, from online chatrooms to water coolers in offices in the Tar Heel State, though the tone, from some corners, has been far from encouraging striving and prospering.

How come the elite high-school recruits head to Duke and Kentucky and not Carolina anymore?

Are the players we have good enough to make the Final Four?

When are we going to make the Final Four again? It’s been too long for a school like UNC.

After seven years, a wait that must have seemed like an eternity for their fans, the Tar Heels are back to the Final Four for a record 19th time, two wins away from another championship. They are also two wins away from fully silencing those who have hinted at (or downright stated) that the program has plateaued under head coach Roy Williams.

And the team readily admits that they have heard that chatter. A lot.

“The fans want the best out of us but, at the same time, when they talk that junk about us, we got to put it behind us and we got to stick to our team goals,” said Meeks after the Elite Eight win over Notre Dame in Philadelphia. “They’re always going to be supportive. But some spoil it for others. This is a great team that’s all about each other and all about coach and what he wants.”

The coach, Williams, has been able to recruit some of the most talented players in the country over the past four years, including six McDonald’s All Americans between 2012 and 2015. But, during ACC Basketball media days before the start of the season, he had to field questions about the players they didn’t get during that span, especially compared to two of the other blue bloods of the sport, Kentucky and Duke.

Meeks, along with fellow 2013 McDonalds All American and UNC teammate Isaiah Hicks, were in the same recruiting class as the Harrison twins, Aaron and Andrew, who led Kentucky to two Final Four appearances as well as an undefeated regular season last year. Justin Jackson, Joel Berry and Theo Pinson, all McDonalds All Americans, came to Chapel Hill the next season, as many All Americans as Duke was able to recruit to Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Those three players Duke got? Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Grayson Allen. All were integral members of Coach K’s championship squad last season, with Okafor and Winslow leaving after their freshman seasons and becoming lottery picks in the 2015 NBA Draft.

In the bizarro world of college basketball fandom, one of the biggest laments most fans have about the game, the influx of “one-and-done” players, is an element in one of the biggest complaints that North Carolina basketball supporters have: their lack of securing that “one-and-done” talent.

Those barbs stuck with Williams all season, and, going along with the seven-year drought of not reaching the national semifinals, has acted as fuel to Carolina’s fire in their run to Houston.

“It hasn’t always been smooth,” said Williams during the Final Four press conference on Friday in response to a question about what makes this year’s team fun to coach. “I don’t think Luke’s in here, but [Charlotte Observer sports writer] Luke DeCock asked me yesterday because, until three weeks ago, this was the least appreciated team really good team I’ve ever coached and most criticized really good team I’ve ever coached. I got tired of listening to all that stuff. That made me want some things even more for them. Everybody had a solution to what our problems were. We’re pretty doggone good.

Instead of clinging to the sports trope that he doesn’t read what’s being said on the outside, Meeks copped up to falling victim to having rabbit ears.

“I think more than anyone, I used to listen to it a lot,” said Meeks, who scored in double figures in each of the two East Regional games last week in Philadelphia. “It kind of took away from my game a little bit just because of a little discouragement or whatever it may be. Whether they were fans or not, you still hear it. You don’t like to hear those things because I know how hard I’ve worked and I know the work that I put in late nights when nobody sees it. I’m just glad I’m in a great position to contribute to my team.”

Fittingly, the origin of Meeks’ nickname could also have doubled as the rallying cry of these Tar Heels during this season, where they have tried to reclaim their place atop the college basketball world.

Said Meeks: “Always strive and prosper, because we’re always going to bounce back.”

Two wins in Houston, and the only sounds the team will hear from its fans are that of relief and exultation.

But if they don’t win the title this weekend…

 


[Recap of North Carolina’s East Regional Final win over Notre Dame]


[Cover photo (Hubert Davis/Isaiah Hicks/Kennedy Meeks) courtesy of Streeter Lecka/Getty Images]

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