Friday, December 12, 2008

It was all new for Cliff Tucker.

There were the 6 a.m. conditioning sessions, initially midsummer morning nightmares foreign to the Maryland basketball team.

There was always something different to haul back to the dorm room to try - foam rollers, massage sticks and more.

There was the lifting strategy, instituted when Paul Ricci was hired in June as part of an initiative to improve the Terrapins’ conditioning.

“He had us doing 80-pound weights, and I couldn’t believe it,” Tucker said. “I even called my mom and said, ‘This guy’s crazy.’”

Perhaps. More importantly, he’s the Maryland basketball program’s first full-time strength and conditioning coach, a priority last after the Terps wilted in the closing stretches of games - and, ultimately the season.

Take a look around the roster, and Ricci’s influence is everywhere. Landon Milbourne, already athletic, is now exceptionally muscular. Adrian Bowie’s amplified strength and quickness helped him earn a spot in the starting lineup. Braxton Dupree, though struggling, reshaped his body over the summer.

The Terps (6-2) have not collapsed late in games entering Friday’s meeting with Delaware State (2-10). To get there, Ricci found a different challenge at Maryland than what he faced while working on the Baltimore Ravens’ staff for nine years.

“It’s been - and still is - constant teaching,” Ricci said. “If you can get guys to have good, consistent work habits, it doesn’t matter what type of workouts you do. You’re going to have success.”

The dreaded 22s

Pound for pound, Bowie is the Terps’ strongest player. At least once a game, the sophomore will writhe into a seemingly impossible and almost certainly punishing predicament and still uncork a shot.

Even he shudders at the mere mention of one of the first things Ricci introduced - the 22s.

“I don’t even want to hear that word,” Bowie said. “That was the worst. We died on the first day we did that.”

The 22s are a drill of running the length of the court four times in 22 seconds and repeating the process 22 times with 40 seconds of rest between each sprint. They were also the first of many signals that Ricci would almost instantaneously change Maryland’s conditioning program.

The commitment, though, came from above. Coach Gary Williams saw enough last year to know the Terps could ill afford a rerun of last year’s collapses. Six times, Maryland lost despite holding a halftime lead - the most memorable and most damaging when the Terps yielded a 20-point lead at home to Clemson two weeks before Selection Sunday.

Clearly, conditioning played a role. And since so many other programs now allocate a single strength coach for roughly a dozen players, Williams recognized what might have been his most crucial priority.

“I had to fight for that,” Williams said. “You’re always looking to improve the program. If you look at other schools, that’s your competition. You want a level playing field. If they hire a guy strictly for men’s basketball, then you’d better.”

Ricci, who was let go after the Ravens changed coaches, was available. Maryland approached him, and he bounced ideas off colleagues in the industry, coming back to Williams several times with even more questions.

Ricci needed to know that Williams was committed to a revamped program. What he didn’t know was precisely what he would inherit when he arrived - and how quickly he would make a difference.

“When I came here, with Landon I said, ‘By the end of the summer, you’ll be able to use 100-pound dumbbells,’” Ricci said. “And he’s like, ‘For real?’ like I was from another planet.”

Instant change

Walk into the Maryland locker room after a game, and there’s a notable new accessory - small tubs filled with ice water, with Milbourne, Eric Hayes and Greivis Vasquez soaking their feet after the pounding of playing 30 minutes.

It’s Ricci’s resourceful solution to non-NFL conditions - run down to Target, purchase some $7 containers and rush like crazy to have them ready after a game to improve the players’ recovery time.

Other adjustments aren’t visible. Ricci ordered nutritional adjustments for the entire roster, adding an array of supplements, shakes and bars. He also instituted a mandatory breakfast.

But the biggest change arrived in the overhauled conditioning. Ricci soon developed a tough-but-fair reputation among the Terps, who found his expectation level more demanding than they anticipated.

“Sometimes, I was hating Paul,” Tucker said. “But we need it a lot.”

Bowie believes the improved conditioning might have won Maryland its game against Michigan State, a team the Terps dominated in the second half but that is typically known for its physical play. If nothing else, players admit they feel different than in years past.

Williams, though, is optimistic a greater payoff awaits later in the season - when games the Terps frittered away a year ago could turn the other way.

“I think you’ll get into that in January and February, when every game is intense and conditioning probably becomes more of a factor,” Williams said. “It’s a gradual thing. You don’t just do it in three months or six months. You build that into a program where that’s just the way it goes when you go to school.”

Note - Williams said forward Jerome Burney has a stress fracture in his foot and will miss three to six weeks. Burney, who is averaging 0.6 points and 1.9 rebounds, redshirted two seasons ago because of foot problems.

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