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Kennedy Meeks went from 300-pound recruit to Final Four hero for North Carolina

Four years of hard work paid off for Meeks on college basketball’s biggest stage.

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Kennedy Meeks sat in North Carolina’s championship locker room with a feeling of vindication and a sense of relief. The Tar Heels’ season-long quest for redemption was complete, and as a senior, so too was Meeks’ college career.

For Meeks, the personal satisfaction of this moment went beyond cutting down the nets. This was the culmination of four long years that started under the beating August sun in Chapel Hill in the summer of 2013. Before Meeks could grow into Carolina’s Final Four hero, he first had to pass Roy Williams’ 12-minute run.

A big smile shot across his face when he was reminded he’d never have to do it again.

“Hell nah,” Meeks beamed as he crossed his throat with his right thumb. “I’m done with that.”

The 12-minute run is the grueling conditioning test Williams annually holds on the first day of classes. It requires players to make seven laps around a quarter-mile track in, you guessed it, 12 minutes. If you don’t pass, you keep running it until you do.

As a freshman, Meeks failed 11 times.

Back then, Meeks was pushing 300 pounds. He stuck out at the 2013 McDonald’s All-American Game next to lean athletes like Andrew Wiggins and Julius Randle. Williams knew Meeks had talent, but it would take a lot of hard work from both of them to fully bring it out.

"It's been love and hate," Williams said of his relationship with Meeks the day before the title game. "And that’s said tongue in cheek. Because I've been on him really hard, I really have. I'd probably say I've been on Kennedy and Brice Johnson harder than any players I've ever coached."

Williams pushed and pushed, but Meeks never felt broken. He had grabbed a starting spot by the end of his freshman year, and became a nightly double-double threat as a sophomore. By then, he was down to 270 pounds and playing with new confidence. His transformation didn’t stop there.

The 1-year transformation of Kennedy Meeks

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Meeks was down to 260 pounds this season as a senior, and he was playing with more energy than ever. So much of Carolina’s success happened because it was the best offensive rebounding team in the country, and Meeks was the workhorse who made it possible. He finished with No. 10 in the nation by grabbing 16.4 percent of UNC’s misses when he was on the floor.

All of America got to see four years of hard work pay off for Meeks this weekend. He played the best game of his life in the Final Four.

On Saturday, Meeks was matched up against Oregon’s Jordan Bell, who was coming off a brilliant performance to key the Ducks’ Elite Eight win over top-seeded Kansas. Meeks came in and outplayed him thoroughly on both ends. He finished with 25 points, 14 rebounds and three steals on 11-of-13 shooting. He also grabbed a huge offensive rebound off a missed free throw at the end of the game to help seal the win.

Sean May knew what it must have felt like. Now 33 years old, May is the assistant director of player development for the Heels. He was in this same situation 12 years ago as a player, when he also played the best game of his life at the Final Four to beat Illinois and clinch Williams’ first-ever national title.

When UNC took the court on Saturday, May told Meeks this could be his own defining moment.

Jordan Bell is a heck of a player,” May said after the win. “But I thought he was bigger in stature. I just thought he was a little bit heavier. When I saw him out there, I said Kennedy, there’s no way he should be able to stop you. You’re too big. I told my teammates the same thing when we were playing Wisconsin, Villanova and Illinois. I just didn’t feel like they had anyone big enough.”

Meeks’ numbers against Gonzaga — seven points, 10 rebounds — weren’t as gaudy, but there was no questioning his impact. He won the heavyweight fight in the middle by limiting Przemek Karnowski to 1-of-8 shooting. He also made the game-sealing block on Nigel Williams-Goss with the ‘Zags trailing by three and under 20 seconds remaining.

Joel Berry II might have been named Most Outstanding Player, but there’s no way the Tar Heels would have cut down the nets in Phoenix without Meeks. He had come full circle, from overweight recruit to Final Four lynch pin, and he was given the ultimate reward for it.

None of this was lost on Meeks as he reflected on his career at Carolina.

“The wear and tear of these four years has been rough on my body,” Meeks said. “That’s the price you have to pay in order to win these championships. A year ago we were in this locker room crying, now we’re the happiest team in the country.”

Other players might not have responded to being constantly pushed by their head coach. Transferring is the easy option, but Meeks never thought about it. Carolina hasn’t lost a transfer since 2011, and Meeks is a premium example of what can happen when you stay the course.

“People get so caught up in if it’s not good now,” Meeks said with the national championship cap on his head. “You have to look down the road.”