HOOPS: Speights Owes Plenty To Hargrave

Wakeup was 6 a.m. sharp seven days of the week and that was followed by breakfast and formation at 7. There was so much class, basketball practice, mandatory study hall and tutoring that it took no time at all for Marreese Speights to fall into a deep sleep. That was life at Hargrave Military Academy but if you ask him if it was worth it, the answer is an enthusiastic yes.

(See Marreese Speights profile)

Without Hargrave, Speights knows he wouldn't be reporting to the University of Florida on June 27 to begin his first college classes in Summer B. There are some things that being 6-10 and 250 pounds can't get you and that's a free pass into a Division I school but Hargrave gave the big center/power forward from St. Petersburg just what he needed to get over what at one time seemed like a very large hump.

"When I went to Hargrave there was a lot I needed to do," said Speights in a telephone conversation with Gator Country Monday night. "I had a lot of work to do on my grades, I had a lot of work to do on my game and I had a lot of growing up to do as a person. I think I got better in all ways while I was there."

First and foremost were the grades. When he left St. Petersburg for the Chatham, Virginia military school he had some catching up to do to get eligible for a Division I scholarship. He needed a better GPA and he had to get a qualifying ACT score.

He met that goal through plenty of hard work, staying focused during the mandatory nightly study halls and overcoming the fear of sounding dumb if he asked questions about homework to his tutors. He discovered that if he asked questions, he got answers and with answers he could make quantum leaps forward in the classroom.

"I'm eligible to play college basketball because of what happened at Hargrave," he said. "I know how to listen in class and I know how to study and I know how to ask questions. The classes were hard --- they were like college work --- but that's what they want them to be so you can get ready to be successful in college."

Working on his game was hard but that was the fun part of the day. He was on a team with nine other players that signed Division I scholarships including 6-9 Vernon Macklin (Georgetown) and 7-0 Jonathon Mandeldove (UConn). In St. Petersburg, he had a tough time finding guys his own size to go against every day. At Hargrave, he had to bang and fight for every rebound every single day in practice against big time players that will be stars in the near future on the big NCAA stage.

Games, he says, were easy because practices were so tough.

"Practice was way better than most of our games," he said. "Coach (Kevin Keatts) made us compete every day in practice. There weren't any days off. We worked hard on everything but then he would throw the ball out and say time to go and it was up and down with plenty of trash talking. It was totally up tempo and that's how we played in the real games.

"We averaged 101 points a game because we played fast and we played hard," he said. "The way we played, we had to use everybody on the bench and that's why we all scored and we all rebounded. Nobody had big stats but we all did good."

Speights averaged 12 points and 10 rebounds a game but more impressively, he averaged 4.3 blocked shots a game.

"I could score and I could rebound before I got up there," he said. "I learned how to be a better defensive player and I got so much better blocking shots. I like being able to change a game with a good defensive play."

Becoming a better basketball player was important to him but on equal footing was the personal growth he experienced. He admits that when he got to Hargrave there was a lot of maturing that needed to take place.

"This is the part that I probably needed most because it affected me in the classroom and in basketball," he said. "I really did need to grow up. Now that I've graduated from Hargrave I can see how I matured as a person, how I learned to accept responsibility and do little things … like be on time, like always getting assignments done, like not making excuses if things didn't go my way, learning about respect for others and respect for myself.

"When I look back on stuff like that and someone asks me if Hargrave was worth it, I can say yeah it was. I'm ready for college and when college is over, I'll be ready for the real world. If somebody asked me today about Hargrave I'd have to tell them that it's the best thing that ever happened to me."

He drove up from St. Petersburg to Gainesville this past weekend and spent a couple of days hanging around with the guys that will officially be his teammates once he enrolls at the University of Florida on June 27. He enjoyed just hanging around with Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Taurean Green, Corey Brewer, Lee Humphrey, Chris Richard and Walter Hodge.

"I was just chillin' with all the guys," he said. "Mostly I was just hanging out with all the guys on the team and getting to know everybody better. It felt good to feel like I'm a teammate and not just a recruit."

The lessons learned on the road to maturity weren't lost just because it was a weekend to hang out with new buddies. He took the time to observe and soak in what he saw and heard.

"I watched them [teammates] play," he said. "They run hard as hell every play and they don't ever take a play off. They're focused and they play hard every play. I realized I better come here ready to go like they go and I know I have to get in better shape. I am in good shape but those guys don't ever stop running. I'll be working out every day a little bit harder."

The visit also re-confirmed that the choice he made to go to Hargrave so he would have a chance to be a Florida Gator was the right thing to do.

"Every time I go up to Gainesville and I hang with the players or talk to the coaches I know I made the right choice," he said. "It's the right place for me to go to college. I couldn't have gotten there though if I didn't go to Hargrave first."

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