Strongman training builds Florida into Final Four contender
MEMPHIS -- It's tempting to think of Florida as a glamour basketball school, what with all that sunshine and tradition and Billy Donovan's endless supply of hair gel. But glamour has little to do with how the Gators arrived in the Elite Eight.
Florida seized the No. 1 ranking, won 29 straight games and entered this NCAA tournament among the favorites because it grinds. The Gators wear teams out, wear them down, with frenetic pace, full-court pressure and linebacker physicality. They play basketball like a boxer intent on punishing the body, the accumulated impact of the blows far greater later on.
The base for all this, for the press and the pressure and a team that lacks a sure NBA. star and yet stands one game from the Final Four, is training. Strongman training, to be specific.
That starts with Preston Greene. He is, by official title, Florida's strength and conditioning coordinator. He is, by unofficial title, the Gators' chief torture artist.
"Our strength coach is nuts," said Matt McCall, an assistant coach. He meant that affectionately. We think.
The Strongman training starts each August and runs for 12 weeks. It's set up as a progression, so it begins with one event and adds another each subsequent week.
You might have seen similar training methods late at night on ESPN2 in real Strongman competitions. The Gators flip 500-pound tires. They pull cars. They push trucks. They run while carrying the heavy bags used for boxing training or with 50 pounds of weights on each arm. They walk fast with squat racks on their backs.
This is how Scottie Wilbekin, the SEC conference player of the year, described his Strongman initiation: legs wobbled, muscles angry, breath gone. He spent several minutes on the ground after the sadistic workout ended with no thought, not even a hope, of standing upright anytime soon. Teammates around him started vomiting. One time a neighbor even called police because the player's grunts were so loud.
"It's not easy," Wilbekin said. "It's not fun. I don't really like that stuff. But it's a necessary part of the process."
Indeed. Greene took over the strength program at Florida in 2011, ascribing to the theory handed down by a mentor, Charles Poliquin. Workouts needed to be varied. Athletes needed to be pushed. Comfort zones needed to be expanded.
Greene oversees basketball players who spend most of their time inside. They train indoors. They lift indoors. They often run indoors. Their bodies become accustomed to that routine. Their gains become greater when that routine is broken. That's the thinking.
But Greene needed to incentivize this part of his program. So he used the oldest trick in the unofficial athletic trainer handbook -- he made it a competition. He timed each event and gave players points based on how they finished. Then he took the "standings" and posted them all over the athletic facilities at Florida, even around campus. "Because let's be honest," Greene says. "What basketball player wants to push a truck?"
The program worked. The Gators became Strongmen, or at least stronger ones.
Take Patric Young, their 6-foot-9, 240-pound center with muscles so defined they look carved from stone. He might be the strongest player in college basketball. But he did not win the Strongman standings three years ago or before last season. Erik Murphy won last year and now plays for the Chicago Bulls. Coaches used that to motivate Young, to make him stronger, to coax him into a fuller effort. He would Tweet out his excitement on Strongman days last summer. Like, 6 a.m. Tweets. Like the Final Four was upon him.
He was not alone. Swingman DeVon Walker climbed from dead last two years ago to middle of the pack this season. Forward Casey Prather ascended from bottom third to top three. Not that he enjoyed it. "They do a good job in the off-season of, like, killing us," he said.
Greene says the Strongman training elicits some "intimate moments," and by intimate, he means like that time it took 13 minutes for one player to inch a truck forward. But those are the moments that can bond a team. Others stepped in and helped the player inch the truck -- a Nissan Titan -- up a hill, underneath that blistering Florida sun.
Finding the right equipment elicits more complications. For 500-pound tires, Greene goes to the nearest Goodyear, where they can't throw away or burn tires just because they no longer use them. They told him to take as many as he wanted -- much to the chagrin of the Gators who later flipped them down local roads.
As Florida went on its run, winning every game it played since Dec. 2, Greene sometimes thought back to stamina the Gators forged in August. Florida won so many games because it limited opposing offenses, and they did that with the press, and the baseline for the press is Donovan's ability to run it constantly, throughout games, without pause. That started with the tires and the trucks and the vomit on the sidewalk.
"You have the carryover to grinding and finishing, especially when it's close," Greene says. "We always preach to them the same thing.
"Guys, you've pushed trucks 100 yards up a hill, outside, in the heat. There's nothing you can't handle now."