In his 15th season leading a Division I squad, Maryland men’s basketball Coach Mark Turgeon can diagnose physique issues with a quick glance. Point guard Pe’Shon Howard, for instance, was too bulky last season, putting unnecessary pressure on his surgically repaired right knee. Center Shaquille Cleare was too robotic in his movements. Others, such as center Alex Len, needed to add weight and become tougher. Simply put, the Terrapins needed sculpting.
So last spring, Turgeon laid out his vision for the program’s offseason workouts. And if Turgeon is the architect, Kyle Tarp is the builder.
A former college cornerback with a square jaw and buzz cut, Tarp is in his second season as Maryland’s director of basketball performance, and the best evidence of his effect on the team is taped to his office window. The “before” shots of seven Terrapins look normal; most of the “afters” appear Photoshopped. In three months, swingman Jake Layman went from beanstalk to buff. Guard Seth Allen’s back now resembles a cracked desert. Bulging veins have stretched guard Nick Faust’s tattoos.
The pictures increase the players’ confidence, but Tarp is more concerned with how his unique, basketball-tailored program translates to the court rather than any physical transformation. And each day, as he maps caloric intakes or body-fat percentages, he ponders the overarching question:
“Will it help the athlete achieve and accomplish what Coach Turgeon wants?”
After graduating from UC Davis in 2006 with a degree in exercise biology, Tarp worked in the private fitness sector until graduate school at the University of Texas. In Austin, he studied under Todd Wright, college basketball’s first sport-specific strength coach, learning a nontraditional approach that emphasizes movement and fluidity over brute strength.
During his freshman season at Xavier, Dez Wells said he “lifted like football players.” But at Maryland, each exercise serves a basketball-specific purpose. There are no bench presses or hang-cleans meant solely to build brute strength. Instead, players jump with basketballs hooked to air-resistance machines to hone vertical explosiveness, and dribble medicine balls beneath low-hanging ropes to enhance lateral agility.
After practices, Tarp solicits intensity ratings from the players on a 1-to-10 scale and adjusts the ensuing weightlifting session accordingly. He’s the first strength coordinator Turgeon has ever seriously asked, “How do you think their legs are doing?” The better Tarp understands Turgeon’s system, the more effective his workouts will be.
“I think what Kyle has is common sense,” Turgeon said. “In the offseason, he goes full-bore. I tell him what I want. This kid has to do this, gain weight, lose weight, have a stronger base, his foot speed is slow. We sit down and talk about each kid, then he might see something I don’t see.”
One hour into an interview, Tarp hasn’t even mentioned weights. Instead he’s raving about Maryland’s recovery options. Tarp once learned than athletes recover faster when they pick the mode. Power of the mind, he says. James Padgett, for instance, gravitates toward hot-cold therapy. Len likes ice baths and temperature contrast. Others soothe muscles with air-filled compression pants that look like hockey pads.
“At other colleges, recovery is up to you,” Wells said, sipping pre-workout nutrition shake. “And at the end of the day, the strength and conditioning coaches don’t have to care. It’s just their job. . . . Without saying it, Kyle knows that, at the drop of a hat, we’d do anything for him. That’s why the care and the time of day are reciprocated.”
Tarp’s give-and-take relationship with the Terps has produced sweeping results. Faust gained 22 pounds of muscle this offseason. Layman added 17 pounds. Cleare and Charles Mitchell dropped 45 pounds combined.
And then there was Alex Len.
When Len signed with Maryland in August 2011, he brought a lanky, bony frame over from Ukraine. Len was unpolished and weak, but Turgeon saw a body ready to explode. After Len’s freshman season, Turgeon told everyone within earshot that Len would either quit or get tougher.
Thanks to Tarp’s design, Len now weighs 255 pounds, up from 219 upon arrival in College Park. He ate chargrilled chicken sandwiches and drank protein shakes, taking in more than 6,000 calories per day. Tarp once discovered Len had a low iron intake, so he added steak to Len’s burrito-bowl order. Problem solved.
And whenever Len’s workouts lacked intensity, Tarp name-dropped college basketball’s top big men. Indiana’s Cody Zeller? Duke’s Mason Plumlee? “You have to outwork those guys.” During a particular preseason bicycle workout, Tarp set a standard: 120 pedal strokes in 20 seconds. Len hit 170, walked away and vomited into a nearby trash can. Then he remounted and hit 180.
“You have to keep pushing to the point where you can’t do it anymore,” said Len, who leads the team in points (13.9 per game), rebounds (8.8) and blocks (2.6).
Over the summer, Tarp required the players to send him photos of every meal, and sometimes performed surprise inspections. Once, he tried to catch Cleare and Mitchell in a dining hall with a pizza and fries. Instead, he found salad and hard-boiled eggs.
“Kyle has been a tremendous part of my life,” said Cleare, who eliminated fried foods and sodas this summer. “He brought me down to where I needed to be. I feel like I’m in much better shape, I’m stronger, put on muscle mass and got rid of body fat. It’s a big part of why my game’s improved a lot. You put bad food in your body, your body’s going to work bad. Put good food in, it’ll work well.”
Len crouched in a power stance during a filmed workout. His eyes locked ahead in a predator’s stare, he gripped a white rope, 50 pounds in weight and 10 feet in length. To his left, Cleare did the same.
The players whipped the rope up and down with two hands, like a heartbeat’s readout in fast forward. This drill, which trains holding a defensive stance relative to external agitation, is one aspect of Tarp’s cross-training conditioning, which also includes sled pushes and a “Force” treadmill powered only by human exertion.
The intensity tones down during the season, when lifts are geared more toward maintenance than strength-building. But Cleare and Len still battle daily, sending the other hurtling with body checks and stiff forearms, making themselves basketball tough.
That afternoon, Tarp called in Maryland’s academic adviser and two women’s basketball players to judge Len and Cleare based solely on effort. After a brief huddle, they declared Cleare the winner.
Shoulders throbbing and back aching, Len kneeled below a mirror to pump out his punishment: 40 push-ups. Nearby, two other Terrapins gripped the ropes while Tarp looked on. It’s time to go again.