North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks makes Tar Heel mentor Sean May proud

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Sean May is a North Carolina legend, the 2005 Final Four MVP, who helped lead the Tar Heels to the fourth title in school history. At 6-foot-9, more than 260 pounds, it wasn’t often that May met his match in either size or physicality on the court.

Therefore, you can understand May’s shock when he showed up to play pick-up in Chapel Hill a few summers ago, and saw a freshman who was both as big and strong as he was.

His name was Kennedy Meeks. And while he didn’t have the game to match May, he had a mouth that wouldn’t let him back down.

“He’s a North Carolina kid so he watched us play and so he wanted to come [to North Carolina], come at me a little bit,” May, now North Carolina’s Director of Player Personnel, said Friday in Glendale. “We had our arguments, we fought. And I love that. I think it brings you closer. There’s a trust that happens because we played against each other. There’s a respect earned there.” 

Kennedy Meeks  and Jordan Bell tangle while battling for the ball. (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
NCAA Photos via Getty Images

May joined the North Carolina staff full-time prior to last season, and from there the relationship blossomed into one of college basketball’s most unlikely mentor-mentee relationships. Meeks grew up a Carolina fan and told FOX Sports that May was “my favorite player growing up.” Meanwhile, May couldn’t help but see a young version of himself in Meeks.

While May can’t technically “coach”in practice with his current role, he has been quick to hand out pointers to Meeks.

“He helps me all the time,” Meeks said Friday. “He sends me game film of all my mistakes, bad post-ups, even good post-ups.”

There wasn’t much to complain about on Saturday for May, as Meeks had one of the best games of his career in a 77-76 victory over Oregon. He led the way with a game-high 25 points, to go along with a team-high 14 rebounds. That included arguably the biggest board of the Tar Heels’ season, when he grabbed a Joel Berry free throw miss with four seconds to go, and kicked it out to Theo Pinson. The Tar Heels ran out the clock and escaped with a win that sent them to Monday’s national championship game against Gonzaga.

The game itself was part of a larger, stunning evolution for Meeks during his four years in Carolina blue. He began as a little-used freshman who averaged 7.6 points per game during the 2013-14 season, before putting up 11 points per game as a sophomore. Those numbers dipped during the Tar Heels’ title-game run last year, before they bounced back up in 2016-17 as he’s averaging 12 points and a team-best nine rebounds.

After an up-and-down career, Meeks has become one of the most dependable Tar Heels.

“I think the biggest thing for him is he’s way more consistent than he was earlier in his career,” May said. “He understands when he makes mistakes. Before, I think you had to tell him a couple times for him to see it. But he’s a veteran. One thing I told him [all season] is ‘there’s no bigger stage than you played on last year.’” 

There is no bigger stage, and there was no one better in the national semifinal. There also wasn’t a bigger play in the Tar Heels’ entire season than the one Meeks delivered. After he had missed two free throws seconds before – only to be bailed out by a Pinson tip-out – Berry himself missed the front end when he went to the line.

As Berry released the second one, Meeks gained position in the post alongside Oregon’s Jordan Bell, and did just enough to get his hands on the ball, and get it back out to Pinson to seal the victory.

As it turns out, Meeks was following the advice of — you guessed it — Sean May.

“One thing I always tell him is ‘yeah there are guys who are longer and athletic, but you have a gift,’” May said. “And that gift is your size. Being able to use your girth to root out guys and get position.” 

It is a gift – a gift that pushed North Carolina straight into Monday night’s national championship game.