Making Weight

For Texas basketball strength and conditioning coach Todd Wright, the most obvious signs of the Longhorns' progress over the past year don't come from win totals and outside expectations exceeded.

Instead, Wright can see the way a player executes a drop step, knowing that it was honed in the offseason. A player's strong base defensively, not allowing himself to get pushed around is another indicator. Even the way that the team unselfishly shares the ball and helps on defense have traces back to the offseason.

"We have a long way to go," Wright said, sitting forward in a chair at the edge of the Longhorns' weight room at the Denton A. Cooley Pavilion. "The best basketball is in front of those guys right now."

And the bushels of adversity are behind. Picked to finish eighth in the Big 12 after a losing 2012-2013 season and the loss of the Longhorns' top four scorers in the offseason, Texas has outshone the most optimistic fan scenarios, going 20-5 in the season's first 25 games and holding a 9-3 mark in Big 12 play.

"There was a lot of sweat that went into creating that," Wright said. "You can't help but feel a sense of pride when you watch this group play. It's not going to be an easy road, but I'm most proud of the approach, the mindset that this group has had."

To Wright, Texas's surprise 20-win record and that accompanying mindset wasn't born when the Longhorns rolled the ball out to start the season. Instead, the team was forged through tough workouts that chiseled bodies, brought out leadership and taught the young 'Horns to be accountable to each other.

"I think it's an accumulation of everything," Wright said. "The perception was that skill wise, we might have been a bit down. Coach's philosophy has always been that we're going to have to be in the best shape possible so that we can have the biggest fight in us.

"We knew that our conditioning was going to have to go to another level," Wright said.

Making Plans

At the end of every season, good or bad, Wright sits down with Texas coach Rick Barnes to lay out plans for the offseason program. And Wright admitted that after a 16-18 season, a first-round exit in the CBI and the mass exodus of the Longhorns' leading scorers, this offseason lent to a heftier evaluation session.

But while the circumstances were different, Wright said the message was the same as always: work to compete, and win, right now.

"What I did know was this: I knew that being with Coach, we had been successful with teams that had had less than what we had now. I knew that," Wright said. "Coach's vision was one that we were going to keep this program at a competitive level, and the discussion was how were we going to do that."

Wright and Barnes knew the media perception.

"They didn't think this team was going to be very good," Wright said. "But I knew we had better basketball players than some of the kids we had at Clemson. And I knew what we did at Clemson with Coach, and I knew how we did it. So I knew we could keep this thing at a high level."

Wright also went back to see what he did with previous, more physical Texas teams, looking at the training methods for those squads with Brian Boddicker and James Thomas.

"Some of those components, I didn't do with (last year's) team," Wright said. "I took some of those things and put them back into our program."

That included more Olympic lifting, like heavy squats, snatches, cleans and jerks.

"It's amazing," Texas coach Rick Barnes said Monday. "People have no idea what those guys put into it and what Todd and his staff does behind the scenes with these guys, keep them healthy and protect them.

"And I think if you ask everyone to a man, they'd tell you that it's the best situation you could possibly have," Barnes said.

Everyone's Different

These aren't one-size-fits-all workouts. Instead, they're tailored with specific purposes for specific players. Javan Felix entered the program a bit heavier than the staff wanted him at, and his offseason plan called for him to cut weight while getting more explosive athletically, something Wright said Felix did before hurting his hip in the offseason.

"Before Javan got hurt, he was in sick shape, I mean sick shape," Wright said. "I think right now, he's just starting to get that conditioning level back. A lot of people don't understand that he missed four or five weeks. He's starting to work back into a good place, and that rest could play a key role down the stretch."

Demarcus Holland's workout plan was the opposite. An explosive athlete but a string bean after entering the program, the goal was to bulk Holland up and give him the strength and base needed to not just serve as the Longhorns' primary wing defender, but also to make a better impact on the glass. For that, Holland spent plenty of time on the re-introduced Olympic lifts, making full use of them to add layers of muscle to his rail-thin frame.

"I think Demarcus Holland is one that really benefitted from that change," Wright said.

Not all decisions were so cut-and-dried. Take Cameron Ridley. The McDonald's All-American center, who weighed in at 262 pounds in high school, reported to Texas at a whopping 318 pounds according to Wright, a weight the staff quickly helped Ridley shave to 285 pounds for his freshman year. Conventional knowledge said to have Ridley continue to drop weight for conditioning and athleticism purposes. But Wright and the Texas staff noticed that despite Ridley's prodigious size, the center was pushed around too easily in the paint, likely a result of having to drop so much weight the first go-round.

"Going into Cam's evaluation, I felt like — even though he was so big — his strength and coordination through his movement patterns needed to be better," Wright said. "So even though on the outside looking in, you would think taking another 30-40 pounds off him would be the way to go, for some reason, I just didn't think putting all our energies into that would be the best way to go. Putting some high-quality strength work would be beneficial to him."

That's not to say that Ridley looked away when others were running sprints — "Don't get me wrong, he did a lot of running. A lot of running," Wright said — but rather that the most conscious effort was made to reshape Ridley's body, rather than carve a portion off of it.

"Last year, he probably played at about the same weight, but he just looks so much different," Wright said. "He's proportioned differently. He has more lean muscle tissue on him than what he did last year and less body fat than he had last year. He just repositioned that weight a bit."

The work wasn't easy, and it focused quite a bit on training basketball movements through resistance. To improve Ridley's balance and his ability to drop-step, for instance, he would make those movements while resisted by bands, while carrying a ViPR or using other weights.

It was an interesting way to go — most onlookers would likely have stated that Ridley simply needed to lose more weight — but it's one that has paid off as Ridley is averaging 11.5 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.25 blocked shots per game in conference play.

"Obviously, you're taking a gamble on those things, but I thought it was one that was an educated one that watching him get moved (in the post), he would need that," Wright said. "That was the foundation. We did a lot of high-quality strength training too that really helped him get to where he's at now.

"He's a work in progress now, don't get me wrong," Wright said. "But he's doing a much better job of handling his space this year."

Developing Leadership

Just as important was finding a leadership base for a team that, once again, had no seniors.

"Leadership was something we started to talk about the minute we started to train," Wright said. "But how was leadership going to be built?"

It was a fair question, in that the two players who led the most by example, Holmes and Holland, named by Barnes again on Monday as Texas's two hardest workers, were uncomfortable with a more vocal role.

"Jon and Demarcus set the bar every day with how we were going to perform with their attitudes," Wright said. "The other guys look at those, and they respect that. But both of them weren't very well-spoken."

But it happened organically, as Wright said Holland grew into his newfound responsibilities.

"Demarcus started to take a bigger role as training started to move on," Wright said. "He was the one who would say something before we started. He was the one who would say something at the end. He was great.

"Our big thing was we were going to have to find ways to win as a group, together," Wright said. "It was going to have to be the synergy of all of us. There wasn't going to be one guy out there alone making the bulk of those plays. We knew we were going to have to pull them together and keep them accountable for each other."

Coming Together

Everything about the Longhorn workout program, from timed sprints that players would have to re-run if they didn't finish promptly to grueling workout sessions on Clark Field, were designed with team-building purposes in mind.

"We had to redesign a plan that if anybody messed up, we were accountable for each other," Wright said.

The Texas squad quickly had what Wright called "an incident that gave us a learning opportunity."

"The next day, we were able to change with some behavior modification," Wright said. "Everybody paid, and they realized that they had to bond together and make choices for each other."

Wright didn't specify what made up the behavior modification, but he didn't have to — the Longhorns had just one more incident the rest of the summer, right after the crop of three freshmen arrived.

"That gave them the opportunity to learn," Wright said.

And learn they did. Wright said the basketball team hasn't an an "incident" since.

But it was more than just a disciplinary measure. Times on sprints were designed to make the teammates accountable to each other. And on Thursday or Friday mornings, the players would take part in brutal team-building workouts like getting on all fours and passing sand bells back and forth, or carrying ViPRs with each other.

"They were things that we hadn't been doing before," Wright said.

The freshmen blended in pretty seamlessly. Only one, Kendal Yancy, came in the first summer session. And while it would have been ideal for all four to show up early, the timing worked out.

"So Kendal was with the older group and Kendal didn't know any better that he was going to be behind a bit," Wright said. "So Kendal sees where they're at, and he's trying to keep up with them.

"Where Kendal did a great job was that he hooked onto the right guy early," Wright said. "He hooked onto Demarcus Holland right out of the gate."

Wright said that Holland and Yancy were pretty much inseparable.

"He followed Demarcus around everywhere," Wright said. "After training, they were always upstairs. Kendal didn't know any different because he didn't have the other three with him telling him 'oh, this is so hard.' He just thought 'this is what I have to do.'

"All of a sudden, the other three (freshmen) come in for the second session, and Kendal could tell them, 'yo, you guys can do this. I've already done it,'" Wright said. "He was able to help those guys get through it."

It Never Stops

On a computer on Wright's "office" wall of the weight room, a color-coded map is plotted out of the year's workout sessions, from the offseason all the way through the end of the current basketball season. Red days, for instance, indicate days where the volume is exceptionally high. And that map is provided to Barnes so that the Longhorn boss can see a snapshot of the entire year, with the plans set for the players to reach maximum potential when they're playing for the bigger prizes in March.

That means fewer and fewer red days, but doesn't diminish the importance of the workouts and practices.

"Coach has done a brilliant job of making sure that kids aren't burned out," Wright said. "That's such a fine line because you have to practice at a certain intensity level every day to continue to improve. He's done a great job."

It helps that Wright said the team has fully embraced its unselfish mentality.

"As a coach, you recognize that it's about talent at this level, and you have to have talent to perform, but when you have a group of 10 guys that would do anything for each other and share the ball unselfishly, you create a special team," Wright said. "That's what I think this group of guys has done.

"I can't remember the last time that I've been out in town and people have actually gone out of their way to come over to me and say 'Coach, we just want to let you know how proud we are of this team because of how hard they play and how they represent the team,'" Wright said. "I'm not sure if I've ever, in the 16 years I've been at Texas, that I've had that many people approach me. As a coach, that's something that you have to be exceptionally proud of."

But as Wright is quick to note "there's a lot of basketball left." And though everyone is expected back, there will be a similar evaluation process after the season ends, with the Wright meeting with Barnes to determine the direction of the program and its players.

"I've always though the future is right now," Barnes said. "Teams change. I don't care if you bring everybody back, it will be a different team next year."

Wright agrees with that statement, a big part of the reason he's enjoyed watching this year's team grow, get stronger and come together.

"We've had some really special teams here at the University of Texas," Wright said. "This one's a unique group. I'll be honest with you: this one, I'm looking forward to watching where they forge their mark in the history of Texas basketball."

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