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Conditioning Could Be Key To Louisville In NCAA Title Matchup

Louisville's in-game energy and stamina can be partly attributed to its rigorous practices. (Greg Nelson/SI)

Louisville's in-game energy and stamina can be partly attributed to its rigorous practices. (Greg Nelson/SI)

At the end of Saturday’s Wichita State-Louisville semifinal, when everything started to fall apart for the Shockers and they coughed up six of their 11 total turnovers in a span of four and a half minutes, Shocker associate head coach Chris Jans noticed something a little eerie about the Cardinals. “It seems they got more fresh as the game wore on,” said Jans after the game. “We don’t see that very often. To attack and press the way they do and still to have all that energy at the end of the game is remarkable.”

What’s Louisville’s secret? Running, running and more running. It starts in the summer conditioning sessions directed by strength and conditioning coach Ray Ganong, the Miami football strength coach under Howard Schnellenberger when the Hurricanes won the 1983 national title. “He ran the hell out of his players,” says Ganong. “That’s why I was hired here.”

Among Ganong’s more diabolical summer drills are three-minute runs, the very last element of a conditioning session. Players have three minutes to get up and down the court as many times as possible. “One is down, two is back,” says 6-foot-9 senior forward Stephan Van Treese. “You want to get a minimum of 24 when you first start as a big. Twenty-four sounds like a low number when you first start to do it… Towards the end of the summer the guards were starting to get 30, which is incredible. It’s tough.” Another torture: “17s”: running the width of the court 17 times. “You’ll do that five, seven times in a row, but you only get a minute break in between,” says Van Treese. “It’s tough to get your wind.”

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Junior center Gorgui Dieng passed out during his first workout as a freshman. So did sophomore swingman Wayne Blackshear. Vomiting happens, too. “I’ve never puked from workout, which I’m very proud of,” says Van Treese. “It’s grueling, but it’s more mental than it is physical. If you’re a freshman coming in here, it’s very tough on you. You think, man I’m not sure I can do this. Mentally it grinds on you and you finally get into it.”

Once practice starts in October, the running doesn’t let up. “We run a lot in practice, we press a lot in practice,” says senior guard Peyton Siva. “We’d much rather play a game than go to practice just because we think practice is harder than games.” That’s especially true for players who fail to grasp some point of instruction from coach Rick Pitino. Their fate? The dreaded treadmill. “When players need to be encouraged to do things correctly, (Pitino) sends them in to me to run on a treadmill, then I send them back on the court,” says Ganong. “It’s positive reinforcement.”

Junior walk-on guard Michael Baffour, aka Dark Slime, says he is one of the players who sees the treadmill most often. “Let’s say we’re running a play and you don’t screen properly after (Pitino) just went over it with somebody else,” he says. “He’s going to send you to the treadmill. He might give you a minute, or five minutes, or 10 minutes. It depends on how angry he is. It’s no joke.”

The treadmill sessions aren’t leisurely trots. “Coach G puts the treadmill up to 8 or 9; He gets it going,” says Baffour. “If you get sent to the treadmill for a minute, that’s OK, but when Coach P is mad and he sends you for longer, those are the worst.”

When the Cardinals travel to a school that doesn’t have a treadmill handy, the punishment for lack of focus might be a minute of pushups. “It’s more about this,” says Ganong, pointing to his head, “than it is (pant, pant pant.)”

Of course, the payoff for all that mental and physical stress can be enormous. Conditioning made a difference against Wichita State and it could be the difference Monday night against Michigan. “Our conditioning is what makes us go,” says Baffour. “I feel like we’re in a lot better condition than a lot of the teams we play. It seems like every time we look over the other team is gassed and we still got energy.”