The military life at the Virginia prep school has been a tough love experience for Speights, who admits that his grades needed a lot of work. It has been time well spent, though, because he's raised his GPA significantly.
"My grades have really improved a lot," he said. "I'm really proud of that. As soon as I came here they started working with me. They have tutors and they're real demanding. You can't take a day off from class. You have homework every day and if you don't do your homework, you'll fall way behind. I learned a lot by being up here. I feel like I got ready for college. I don't think Coach (Billy) Donovan will have to worry about me because I'll be in class and I'll get my work done in school."
His GPA has been raised high enough that it's no longer a question mark and he's only waiting for his ACT score to arrive. He took it recently and only needed one point to be fully qualified.
"I'm not going to say it hasn't been hard because it has," he said. "But I'm very confident that I've got the test score now. I know I did better this time than I did the time before and I only needed a point to qualify. I'll be there in June and I'll be ready to go."
At Hargrave, not only did he grow in maturity and his approach to academics, but he grew as a basketball player. He was at Admiral Farragut in St. Petersburg last year where he was the big fish in the little pond. At Hargrave, he had to earn every minute of his playing time because he was just one of ten players on the team that signed a Division I basketball scholarship.
He already had a strong inside presence but he feels he became a better rebounder and a more selective shot blocker on defense. Offensively, he expanded the range on his jump shot.
"I'm much better dribbling, I added a three-ball to my game and I'm better finishing around the basket, too," he said. "I've got a lot of confidence when I have the ball in my hands now."
Over the last year, he battled for playing time every day with 6-9 Vernon Macklin (Georgetown), 7-0 Jonathon Mandledove (UConn), 6-6 Tyler Smith (Iowa), 6-2 Armon Bassett (Indiana), 6-3 Stefan Welsh (Arkansas), 6-5 Asown Sayles (Ohio U), 6-6 James Eversley (Virginia Commonwealth), 6-3 Stephen Kendall (Richmond), and 6-1 Devan Carter (Elon). With that kind of talent available, Speights' 11 points and 10 rebounds per game are rather impressive.
"I couldn't get a day off in class and I couldn't get a day off at basketball practice," he said. "Coach (Kevin) Keatts put the guys out there who earned their playing time in practice. Look at our team. We had lots of talented guys and everybody wanted their chance to play but we all knew we had to earn it. Nothing was given to us."
There's something important in those last five words. If there is one thing that Mareese Speights learned in his year up at Hargrave it is that nothing is given to you. Nobody gave him his grades. He had to earn them. Nobody gave him playing time on the basketball court. He had to earn it.
And he knows that once he's at Florida, Billy Donovan won't give him anything. He will have to earn his way onto the court and he'll have to earn everything he gets in the classroom.
"If there's one thing that Hargrave has taught me it's you gotta earn what you get," said Speights. "I know that when I'm at Florida, I'll have to bust my butt every day to stay ahead in the academics and on the basketball court … Joakim (Noah), Al (Horford) and Chris (Richard) aren't going to take it easy on me. They already work hard. I'll have to follow their lead and try to work just as hard or harder than they do."
He talks to Horford quite a lot. Horford has been a major source of encouragement, exhorting Speights to give the extra effort that is necessary to get the grades and to work hard every day to improve in practice.
"Al's told me to be ready when I get here," said Speights. "He's really encouraged me to get my grades up so I can come to Florida and help win another national championship."
Florida's run to the national championship provided serious inspiration for Speights, not to mention bragging rights. When the NCAA Tournament began, Macklin and Mandledove, in particular, were talking about Georgetown and UConn all the time. Macklin couldn't say much after the Gators beat Georgetown in their Sweet 16 game in Minneapolis, and Mandledove's UConn Huskies lost to George Mason, the team the Gators beat in the Final Four in Indianapolis.
By the time the Gators beat UCLA in the NCAA championship game, Speights said all his teammates were suddenly Florida fans.
"They cheered for the Gators during the game and when it was over, all of them were saying they were really pulling for Florida all along," Speights said with a laugh. "I just said yeah. That's what you did."
Florida's championship run only inspired Speights to give it everything he had in the classroom in the final weeks of school.
"I thought this is a chance of a lifetime," he said. "I thought I better bust it and really get with it to make sure I'll be there in the fall. I'm stepping in to be part of a championship team. You don't get a lot of opportunities like that. I was already working hard on my grades. That just made me work even harder."
He talks to the other freshmen that will be joining him at UF on June 28. Jonathon Mitchell (Mount Vernon, New York) was Mr. Basketball in New York. Brandon Powell (Memphis) played for the state runner-up in Tennessee. Doneal Mack (Statesville, North Carolina) lit up the scoreboard from the outside or the inside at Statesville Christian.
He's become particularly close to Mack and hopes that the slender, 6-5 jumping jack will be his roommate at Florida.
"He's a highlight reel guy," said Speights. "Doneal can hit every shot you can think of and he can jump right out of the gym. It's unreal how high he can jump."
Saturday he'll put on that Hargrave Military Academy one more time for graduation. His mother will be there to watch him walk across the stage, leaving the past behind and taking those first steps into the future. There are things he will miss about Hargrave but one thing that won't be missed are those uniforms.
"You put on that army uniform up here and you look around at the basketball players because we're all tall and then over at the football players because they're all big," he said. "The uniforms fit a lot of us real tight and they weren't exactly comfortable. I guess it was easier for some of us than some of the football players. Talk about something funny, you should have seen some of them the first day they put one on."
There won't be any uniforms to wear after Saturday and once he's taken a couple of days off to sleep late, he'll be down at IMG in Bradenton every day getting ready for the start of Summer B in Gainesville.
"I'll be getting myself in better shape and working on my game," he said. "I'm going to be ready when I get there. I've got to work my way in. Nobody's going to give me anything."