If John Henson ever finds his motivation waning in the weight room or on the practice court this offseason, the North Carolina sophomore-to-be finds inspiration in one not-so-pleasant memory.
He'll hearken back to how it felt logging a mere five minutes in a 75-60 loss to Virginia on Jan 31, the culmination of a five-game stretch in which the highly touted freshman forward hardly left the bench.
"Playing only five minutes, that really upset me," Henson said by phone. "That was kind of the turning point for my mindset. That became the motivation that sprung me forward to what I did later in the season and the work I'm putting in now."
In the wake of a North Carolina season that began with great expectations but fizzled as a result of injuries, inexperience and lack of backcourt production, Henson has become a symbol of the current state of the Tar Heels program. The spindly 6-foot-10 former McDonald's All-American showed glimpses of immense potential last season after starter Ed Davis got hurt, yet he still must make great strides in his game to become the impact player recruiting experts projected him to be.
Henson tried to transition to small forward early last season because it afforded him the chance to showcase his perimeter skills to pro scouts, but the move backfired because he lacked an outside shot, he didn't understand his role in the offense and he often gravitated back to the paint. Even when he returned to his natural role as power forward, the 195-pound Henson often got pushed around defensively and on the glass by burlier opposing big men.
It's crucial for Henson to put in the work necessary this summer to correct some of those flaws because North Carolina will need him to play a greater role as a sophomore. As a result of Davis turning pro, Deon Thompson graduating and the Wear twins transferring, the Tar Heels expect Henson to start at power forward and log heavy minutes.
"I'm nervous (about the added responsibility), but it's a good kind of nerves," Henson said. "I know I'm going to carry a bigger load than I did last year, so that will probably be something that's going to be fun for me. I think I'll handle it well."
Henson spends time in the gym each morning honing his low-post moves and his jump shot, but the area of his offseason development that has received the most attention is his attempts to get stronger. So many fans around Chapel Hill ask him about his weight or offer him extra helpings of food that he felt the need to announce to the masses on Twitter a few weeks ago that he was up to 205 pounds.
Now up to 207 pounds and well on his way to his goal of reaching 215 by the end of the summer, Henson attributes his success to an improved focus and work ethic as a sophomore. He said he follows a strict diet, complements that with protein shakes and supplements and concentrates better in the weight room than he ever had in the past.
"I'm just taking my development more seriously," Henson said. "When I'm in the gym or the weight room, I'm focused and I'm not distracted. You can always joke around and have fun, but at the end of the day you have to get your work done. That's going to help you on the basketball court."
Although Henson is confident he'll have success at power forward for the Tar Heels, he knows next season will be measured by whether the team can rebound from its struggles this past winter.
With a star-studded freshman class coming in to provide a much-needed talent influx in the backcourt, it appears the Tar Heels could be poised to not only return to the NCAA tournament but also do some damage once they get there.
"There's always the potential at North Carolina to do great things, but we've just got to put it together," Henson said. "It's understood that we can't have another year like last year, so everyone is just working that much harder to avoid it."