Illini hoops strength coach Adam Fletcher: 'We’re going to look like a completely different team'

Strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher is just part of the Illinois basketball equation. But after a season in which the Illini lacked health, strength and explosiveness, the fiery first-year staffer is looking to make a huge impact on the program's present and future.

CHAMPAIGN - Imagine Adam Fletcher -- all 6-foot-9 of his sculpted frame -- crouched in a cubicle crunching numbers.

That was his path when he arrived at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Fletcher planned to major in accounting -- a plan that changed when he suffered a torn ACL during his freshman year.

During the recovery process, Fletcher took an interest in rehab and physical therapy, changed majors and started an internship for a physical therapist. But that didn’t take either. The fiery Fletcher yearned to be around other competitors.

“I’m working with a 55-year-old male who had a total knee replacement that isn’t motivated or isn’t trying to achieve a championship," Fletcher said. "It’s just, ‘I got to go in here because I got an injured shoulder.’ That didn’t excite me. I was like, ‘OK, this isn’t what I want to do.’”

Fletcher always enjoyed the weight room. He first stepped foot into one at age 9. Yes, age 9 -- an argument against the thought that lifting stunts growth.

Fletcher's father, a rower during his days at the College of Charleston, took his two sons, Adam and Matt (five years the elder), to the gym so the rambunctious boys could burn off some energy.

“That’s kind of where the love of it started,” Fletcher said.

See, Fletcher credits his basketball career to the weight room. Fletcher wasn’t a star, but he was the type of bull-in-a-china-shop player hated by opponents. He started for two years for the RedHawks, served as team captain for two years, once won the team’s award for best defender and played on the 2007-08 Miami team that upset Illinois 61-58 in overtime at the Assembly Hall.

“I was always the guy who loved the weight room,” Fletcher said. “That’s kind of what made me. I wasn’t good by any means but I played hard as (expletive). I was going to hit you, set a screen. My numbers weren’t sexy by any means, but I played 26 minutes a game, defended, rebounded and played hard. Because of strength and conditioning, I had the chance to be good at basketball. That’s what really got me excited about it.”

Fletcher started his strength career during his collegiate days, interning for the Miami strength and conditioning coach. He then spent two years as the assistant strength and conditioning coach under Michigan coach John Beilein before taking over as the head strength and conditioning coach at Towson, where he spent three years.

When he arrived at Illinois in late August, he inherited a mass of injuries -- which only intensified due to several unfortunate accidents. By season’s end, seven Illini players missed a total of 101 games due to injury as Illinois (15-19, 5-13 Big Ten) finished with its worst season since 1998-99.

With a full offseason to build around his designed program, Fletcher now is tasked with re-building those injured bodies, fine-tuning the healthy ones, limiting future risk of injury and increasing the strength and explosiveness of a roster that was too weak and too tied to the ground.

“We’re going to look like a completely different team,” Fletcher said.

New age of strength and conditioning

When most think of strength and conditioning programs, they probably think of bench-pressing and squatting huge amounts of iron. While Illinois players do some of those exercises, strength training has changed a lot since the 1980s and even in the six years since Fletcher played college hoops.

“Being strong all over is important, but these guys will tell you that bench press is the last thing I’m worried about,” Fletcher said. “Unless we’re throwing a hard chest pass or fouling somebody, my bench press doesn’t matter. We want to be a total athlete. Squats, lower-body, legs, that’s what leads to jumping, cutting, change of direction, sprinting. Those are the things we want to get really good at as basketball players.”

The Illini recently started an intense five-week training program. Four days in the weight room. Mondays and Thursdays for upper-body workouts (split into smaller groups) and Tuesdays and Fridays (with the entire team) for lower-body workouts. During the summer, the team will focus more on Olympic-type explosive lifts and plyometric workouts.

But Fletcher points to the key to his program when he pulls out three sheets of paper.

The pages -- filled by a bar graph, a spreadsheet and even a spider graph -- are the product of testing called the Physical Competence Assessment which measures players’ strength, mobility and flexibility. The testing, done recently on Illini basketball players, points out the strengths and weaknesses of each individual’s body type.

“We test everything from what your hips are doing to what your hamstring flexibility is, what your glute strength is, groin, ankle mobility,” Fletcher said. ”

Welcome to the world of strength and conditioning analytics. It’s no surprise that Illini basketball coach John Groce -- a math major, former math teacher and analytics appreciator -- supports the use of such numbers in every aspect of his program.

Fletcher thinks these pages will provide the key to improving Illinois basketball’s bodies -- from building strength and explosiveness to diminishing the risk of serious injury.

He pulls out one graph that shows a player has weakness and balance issues on his left leg. Unsurprisingly, that player had suffered a left knee injury. He pulls out another that profiles a player who has strength deficiencies in his legs. That kind of information will shape each player’s individualized strength and conditioning program this offseason.

“Why would I train this guy the same as this guy as the same as this guy?" Fletcher said. "That’s where we make our biggest difference is the way we analyze this data and then make the changes based off of what we see here."

Killing the injury bug

Groce has been forced to become a bit of an injury expert during past two seasons. Last year, probable starters Mike Thorne Jr. (meniscus), Leron Black (meniscus) and Tracy Abrams (Achilles) played a combined 16 games.

Also, freshman guard Jalen Coleman-Lands missed almost the entire offseason with a stress fracture in his lower left leg. Freshman wing Aaron Jordan was limited early in the summer due to an ankle injury suffered during a prep all-star game. Junior guard Kendrick Nunn missed the first five games with a ligament tear in his thumb, and junior point guard Jaylon Tate missed four games with a dislocated pinky finger suffered during the season opener.

In his three years at Towson (2013-15), Fletcher said a player never missed a game due to injury. He said in his two years at Michigan, only two players missed time due to injury. He hasn't been so lucky at Illinois.

“When I got here, guys were pretty busted up,” Fletcher said. “Some of the injuries, I mean what are you going to do with Kendrick Nunn’s thumb getting caught on a jersey? What are you going to do about Jaylon Tate’s pinky when he lands (on it)? Leron Black had a pre-existing meniscus injury. Mike Thorne’s meniscus."

The rash of injuries forced Fletcher to get creative. Tate couldn't grasp a dumbbell. So to maintain Tate's strength, Fletcher had Tate grab his wrists and push and pull against Fletcher's weight. Nunn couldn't grasp a squat bar on his shoulders. So Fletcher had Nunn cross his arms, put the barbell on his arms and perform front squats. Black and Thorne couldn't run, so Fletcher had to find other ways to keep their conditioning up.

“There were so many things I had to change in terms of training to keep guys strong and to keep guys in shape," Fletcher said. "We had to find all these different ways to keep guys going. It really challenged me to think, ‘Man, how do you condition a guy when he can’t run?’ Coach doesn’t want to hear he’s not in shape, so you got to figure it out.”

Injuries happen in sports. But Illinois has been infested by an injury super-bug. Fletcher's goal is to minimize the sting of the bite.

“You can’t eliminate injury. It’s a contact sport," Fletcher said. "There is injury. But what you can do, and I believe this, is eliminate the severity of the injury. So is it an ankle sprain that keeps him out two weeks or is it an ankle sprain that keeps him out two practices and he’s back out on the court?”

How does he do that? Fletcher points back to the three sheets of paper.

"We want to make sure we’re eliminating movement deficiencies and making that a strength," Fletcher said. "Is it hamstring mobility? Is it hip mobility? Is it ankle mobility? We’re going to figure out what it is through these tests and then we’re going to make sure that’s no longer an issue.”

Fletcher and Groce also are very sensitive to over-training.

Fletcher asks a player to grade the intensity of each workout on a 1-10 scale, with 10 representing a marathon and one representing sitting in a chair. He multiplies that number by the number of minutes the players worked out that day and sums up that week’s worth of activity. If they pass a certain threshold, Fletcher asks Groce to back off their workload to prevent soft-tissue injuries due to over-training.

“Coach has been awesome with that,” Fletcher said. “He’s been awesome with that. It’s really good for our guys because we’re tracking that. We’re not putting them in a situation where we’re just going to continue to grind them, grind them, grind them.

“(Groce) trusts and has seen the results that I’ve gotten at previous institutions. He knows if he gives the time then we can get those same results here with guys.”

Part of the team

Did you ever arrive about an hour early to an Illinois basketball game last season and see a massive, bearded, slick-haired man throw down a disastrous, rim-rattling dunk -- often to cheers and chest-bumps from Illini players?

Yup, that’s Adam Fletcher.

The now routine -- meant to both pump up the players and also lighten the mood before tipoff -- had an impromptu start.

“I have never done that before,” Fletcher said. “One day in practice, I was just jacked up before practice. We had the music pumping, and I just went in and hammered one. The guys went nuts.”

Fletcher’s jams became a Friday practice routine, but he didn’t do it before game until assistant Dustin Ford threw him a pass before the Dec. 23  Braggin’ Rights Game against Missouri in St. Louis.

“I didn’t know I was going to do it, and Ford just throws me the ball and says, ‘Go ahead,’” Fletcher said. “So no warmup or anything, I just went in and dunked it. The guys got excited and from that point on, we wanted to continue to do it.”

In many ways, Fletcher looks like the player Illinois so sorely needs down low: a strong, long presence opposing players fear and opposing fans despise. While Fletcher can’t suit up for the Illini, he does his best to leave his mark on the team.

Besides the pregame dunking, Fletcher is one of the loudest and most fiery coaches on an already boisterous Illini bench. But he also puts in the work behind the scenes, going through every one of his designed workouts with the players. Right now, his training partner is senior center Maverick Morgan, who the Illini are trying to build up following a breakthrough finish to his junior season.

“I’m doing the exact same program they’re doing now,” Fletcher said. “What I want the guys to know is I’m doing it with them. I’m feeling every single thing they’re feeling. Whenever you’re sore, I’m sore. I know how you feel. I don’t want them to think that I would ever ask them to do something that I can’t do. I want them to see me do that with them.”

Fletcher uses tough love too. During Friday morning's workout, he called out the players for a weaker-than-needed effort.

“I tell them, ‘I can’t expect anything but the best from you guys,’” Fletcher said. “‘Whenever I see that it’s not there, I’m going to call you out -- just like I want you to call me out.’ If I walk past something that’s not up to standard, then I’ve set a new low standard. I’m not about that.”

Of course, training does little if not supplemented by the right nutrition program. Fletcher often eats with the team and monitors their meals on the road. Instead of postgame pizza and late-night cookies, the team's meals center around baked chicken, brown rice and salad. 

“You can’t out-train bad nutrition," Fletcher said.

And cookies are a no-no -- even for the coaches.

“The coaches even give me a hard time, kind of like, ‘Come on, Fletch. You can’t bring out the cookies for the coaching staff?'" Fletcher said. "I’m like, ‘No, we’re all in this together.’"

Instant impact?

Fletcher said the team will look different going into next season. But will the Illini, who have missed the last three NCAA Tournaments, play different?

That’s not entirely up to Fletcher, of course. He plays just a part in the Illinois basketball equation. Groce and his staff recruit the mounds of clay. Fletcher molds the different pieces into a certain shape before the staff determines how to function them.

How much can a strength coach change a player in an offseason?

“You can get a two- to three-inch vertical increase,” Fletcher said. “You can get plus-40 pounds on a bench press, plus 60 pounds on a squat, change a body fat percentage down three- to four-percent. Those are things that seem kind of small but over a full package, a full picture of it, now you’ve created a much better athlete.”

Watch the video above for Fletcher’s breakdown of each individual player. But here’s the crash course. Fletcher has made plans for Morgan to add lower body strength, Michael Finke and Malcolm Hill to add explosiveness and for three underdeveloped rising sophomores -- Coleman-Lands, D.J. Williams and Aaron Jordan -- to increase overall strength, balance and mobility.

“You’ll see guys’ bodies change,” Fletcher said.

Meanwhile, Fletcher will continue his work with Abrams, who has missed back-to-back seasons with two major injuries (torn ACL and torn Achilles).

“We’re taking it slow,” Fletcher said. “We’re going to make it sure he’s going to be back on the court in time. But we’re also making sure we’re doing everything as cautious as possible. We want to make sure we’re giving him the best chance possible to be productive in his senior year. He’s a special kid. That’s all I can say. He’s going to do a lot for us.”

Fletcher uses Mike LaTulip and Kipper Nichols as examples of what he can accomplish. Both sat out last season to redshirt. LaTulip, a walk-on who will transfer to play somewhere else for his final season, added strength and lowered his body fat.

Nichols arrived on Dec. 28 and had a max bench press of 205 pounds. He now can rep 195 pounds 16 times, weighs 227 pounds and has 4.6 percent body fat (that’s ripped).

“Kipper Nichols, what he’s done since Dec. 28 is special," Fletcher said. "He just does everything that you ask him to do, which is special. We’re starting to develop that culture throughout the team.”

Muscling up

Fletcher pulls out his cell phone, scrolls through his text messages and clicks on the last one sent from his brother. The video that pops up is a bit startling.

There's Matt (in his 30s) dead-lifting ... 500 pounds.

Matt -- who played basketball at Glenville State College in West Virginia -- is a computer programmer. So is the Fletcher father, Eric, who still hits the weight room.

Adam Fletcher customized his brother's program and shares videos of his workouts with his big brother. They push each other, make each other better.

Fletcher is confident he'll have a similar impact on an Illinois basketball program that must heal up and muscle up to step up in the Big Ten.

“I will say this, it will be noticeable in the way our guys look," Fletcher said. "You look at a Jalen Coleman this year in a jersey and you look at him next year in a jersey, and you’re going to know he was in the weight room.”

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