On the last day of preseason conditioning in late September, Carolina's session was originally scheduled outdoors, where Jonas Sahratian doubtless would've had devilishly strenuous plans for the Tar Heels. Just before the scheduled workout, however, Sahratian changed his mind, and Carolina assembled on the floor of the Smith Center.
The Tar Heel strength and conditioning coach had no creative plans for the team on this particular afternoon. There was only one assignment: run. Then: run some more. Finally: there would be running.
This was kryptonite for one particular freshman, young Kennedy Meeks. The big man looked OK--not good, but OK--on the first sprint, as he and his teammates had to start on one baseline, run to the other baseline, touch the line, and then sprint back to the other baseline. It was essentially the most basic assignment in the game of basketball: run up and down the court.
By the third sprint, Meeks was noticeably laboring. By the fifth sprint, his teammates had interceded, and some were pacing him alongside the Charlotte native while others shouted encouragement from the sideline. It was plainly difficult for him, and there wasn't much he could do except just...keep...running.
That's the backdrop to Meeks' performance Saturday in an 82-71 win over Boston College. He shot a respectable 3-of-4 from the field, hit four of his five free throws, grabbed six rebounds and had a block and a steal in his 15 minutes. But even that packed stat line doesn't tell the full tale.
Instead, consider that Meeks had all ten of his points and all six of his rebounds in his 13 second-half minutes. And most tellingly, those 13 minutes were consecutive, as the man who once struggled to get up and down the court more than twice played the final 13 minutes of the game without ever once flashing the tired signal.
It's one thing to lose the weight. It's still another to lose the weight and see the tangible rewards of losing the weight. About a month ago, Roy Williams told his post men a parable about Tyler Hansbrough, who worked so hard defensively that the Tar Heels didn't have to worry about him getting caught in a defensive switch on an opposing guard. Hansbrough, in fact, had some key late defense on Florida State guard Toney Douglas in a win in Tallahassee.
This year's post men, Williams told them, were not yet ready for that kind of trust, and often needed to be removed when facing an opponent who wanted to play away from the basket. Meeks isn't going to go out and stop the opposing team's best ballhandler any time soon. But he was most often matched up against Boston College's athletic Ryan Anderson on Saturday, and Anderson managed just one field goal in the second half.
"He's a driver," Meeks said. "So I tried to cut that off on both sides. I wanted to put pressure on him. I was hedging hard on screens so he couldn't get away from me."
At a timeout with 6:54 remaining, Williams asked his team for seven more minutes of maximum effort.
Meeks heard his head coach. But when Williams referenced the time remaining, Meeks also noticed something else: he wasn't tired. "When Coach said there were seven minutes left, I wasn't thinking, 'Aw, man, I'm tired,'" Meeks said. "I just dug deep."
That's building off advice given to him by Sean May two weeks ago, when the former Tar Heel big man visited Chapel Hill. May had his own struggles during his first months playing under Williams, as the coach was constantly asking him for more--more running, better finishes around the rim, a quicker first step on the sprint down the court.
May can relate to Meeks, and the 2005 Final Four Most Outstanding Player took a special interest in the freshman when May visited Chapel Hill over the holidays.
"I see where you are," May told Meeks.
"Sean May told me it was hard for him to run in this offense at first," Meeks said. "He kept working hard and thinking about the great player he could be. He encouraged me and told me I could be the same."
That's the kind of veteran-to-youngster advice that is so essential to Carolina basketball. But that advice has to be paired with the current player seeing tangible examples of his work paying dividends.
Like, for example, late in the second half, when James Michael McAdoo had what looked like an easy transition opportunity. When McAdoo had snagged the outlet pass from Brice Johnson, he was a good 20 feet in front of his freshman teammate. Meeks was down inside the paint, at least 85 feet from the hoop. It would've been an easy play to watch from behind.
Instead, Meeks put his head down and, summoning some of the energy reserves he didn't have on that last day of conditioning, sprinted as hard as he could to the other end of the court. He made up ground and arrived at the rim at the exact moment McAdoo's layup rolled off the orange and into Meeks' hands, where he was fouled.
"A lot of work went into that play," Meeks said. "I'm learning to sprint on every possession as hard as I can. If I can give it my all even when I'm tired, the outcome will be good."
Adam Lucas is the editor of CAROLINA.