March Madness is the most exciting, intense four weeks in college basketball. The best teams in the country have year-round preparation strategies via proper nutrition, weight training programs, and a grueling practice schedule designed to earn a ranking among the Top 25 in the nation among the hundreds of Division I schools. From the start of the late springtime recruiting season to Midnight Madness' initial practice week in mid-October, through conference tournament play in early March, each college basketball team's players, coaching and training staff prepare daily, vying for an invite as one of the 68 teams to compete in the NCAA tournament.
The Providence College men's basketball team has a rich history as one of Division I's most storied programs. In continuation of their legacy dating back 50 years from legendary players such as Lenny Wilkens, John Thompson, Marvin Barnes, Ernie DiGregorio and Billy Donovan, along with Hall of Fame head coaches like Rick Pitino and Big East conference founder Dave Gavitt, the Friars take pride in their history as one of the nation's elite teams. This season, the 24-10 (10-8 conference record) Friars are competing in their third straight NCAA tournament under fifth-year head coach Ed Cooley, and they are led by two-time Big East Player of the Year and 2016 Wooden Award finalist Kris Dunn and the Big East's leading scorer (21.1 points per game), Ben Bentil.
Players must sacrifice a lot, both personally and socially, to be a part of a college basketball team. Add that to competing in a conference that boasts some of the country's best teams in Villanova, Xavier, Butler, 2016 Big East Tournament champion Seton Hall, a lengthy road schedule, lack of sleep, and much time away from the classroom and social gatherings that other college students enjoy. These young adults have much to handle, more than just memorizing plays and drills in practice.
Most college students are broke and live off whatever they can get their hands on in their school's cafeteria. But Longtime P.C. head trainer John Rock gave us insight on how the training and coaching staff break down the season into stages, and how they value proper nutrition for the Friars to pull through an exhausting season. He said;
"There are different phases in the year. From July to August, from a strength and conditioning standpoint, we go heavy with strength training. When we start school in September, we stay in a fairly heavy lifting routine three days a week. All of our programs are individually diagrammed for each of the basketball players.
"Once the practice season starts in October, we cut back a little bit on the time. As the seasons goes on, it's really more of a maintenance type of program from a strength and conditioning standpoint. If you talk to Cooley, he will say there are three seasons: Our non-conference season, our conference season, and our tournament season. Two-thirds of our season is over and we're now getting ready for the most important one. He has a real good feel for where the guys are physically, mentally and emotionally. Certainly in September and October, when we get into the official practices, and then in November, when they're putting in new plays, new offenses and defenses, we practice longer. Once the season begins in the middle of November, we start to see the practice times decrease. In the middle of the winter, with our conference schedule and our travel, Cooley does a great job managing our practices. Very seldom will our practices go longer than an hour and a half once we are into the season.
"From a nutritional standpoint, we really try to keep up with eating three meals a day, guys getting up to eat breakfast and the importance of breakfast. We give them opportunities to eat allday. We have food, fruits and nuts, in the locker room. We have a smoothie bar in the locker room. When we travel on the road, the night before, we have the smoothie bar open for them. We do use some supplements, and it's just the thing for the guys who need to understand the importance of a balanced meal."
Friars coach Ed Cooley followed up John Rock's philosophy on how he helps his team recover and push through the lengthy season. He said:
"You have physical recovery and mental recovery. You stretch them out—there's a lot of wear and tear on their legs and their limbs. Make sure they're in a good emotional standpoint, win or lose. You know, you can't lose anymore or you'll go home. So it's more about the mental preparation, proper food and nutrients. High protein, watch some of their sugars in their juice. Make sure there's more natural foods, some fish, some chicken, a lot of veggies, making sure that they stay hydrated. I see a lot of kids cramping up. But it's just to make sure their mental preparation is really good."
The Friars are one of the most athletically gifted teams in the nation. They have guards and high-flying swingmen who can slash and penetrate from the perimeter, as well as front court players who can bang inside or step away from the basket to create their own shots, making them dangerous for their opponents to defend. Kenneth White, their strength & conditioning coach, is credited with supporting this style of play via the Providence College training facility, which places the Friars in the forefront among Big East teams and the nation's best. White stated how he helps bring agility, balance, and strength to the team, and how to keep from detrimentally over-training the players:
"Basically, when playing, it's my weight against another man's weight, like can I keep that guy in front of me? Whether from the perimeter, or down in the post. It's not the Bench Press. You don't play play basketball on your back. So most of what we do is body weight stuff. Chin-Ups, Pull-Ups, a climbing ladder, all kinds of variations of Push-Ups, Dips, Squats, Box Jumps, heavy ropes, we got plenty of those on the wall. Things that help bring balance like jumping rope. We basically just want to master our body weight in all aspects. It may be in the form of a weighted vest or dumbbell.
"You gotta make sure they're strong but well-recovered and fresh. There's a fine line between training and overtraining. Right away, we try to get something in them post-workout or right after practice. I like suggesting mostly food, and it's not like supplements, powders or anything like that. It depends on the guy and what he likes. It's not the food, but rather it's how it's prepared. Chicken is good, but it's not what it is, but how it's cooked. My biggest thing is hydration. I'm a year-round guy, and we have a year-round mentality. These guys play basketball all year-round. We say "the time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining," like John F. Kennedy. If I work on my foul shots now to get better for this part of the season, it's too late. Same thing: If we eat well now because we have three games coming up, it's too late. If it's part of their routine year-round, it becomes natural to them. And have enough variation so it doesn't get stale. If they get enough food, and balance out their meals, they are going to get the vitamins they need."
As for the players who don't play as much in the team's game-day rotation, it can be physically and emotionally taxing for the players on the B squad whose job is to help the A squad stay at a high level. So how do they keep the B squad refueled and in high spirits physically and mentally? John Rock quipped about their experience:
"As the season continues, the rotation gets smaller. Some guys get more minutes to play, and some don't play at all. When you have the guys who have limited playing times for games, you still need them for practice, but you want to give them opportunities to get in an extra lift session per week. Depending on the game schedule, sometimes you get to lift only once a week, at the most, twice a week. The guys who don't play as much have the opportunity for a third option to lift weights. It's up to them whether they want to take advantage of that or not. I think Coach White always offers extra lifting sessions. With guys like Ben Bentil and Kris Dunn, you have to make sure that you don't wear them out."
Kris Dunn and his team faced many obstacles throughout the season, as they reached an Associated Press Top-10 ranking and remained among the Top 25-ranked teams for the majority this season. But in the months of January and February, the Friars went through a tough part of their season, going 7-8, with a three-game losing streak in February. Dunn spoke on how he individually dealt with the adversity, getting over the hump, and what exercises he did to make sure that they could bounce back effectively via the right training regimen:
"It's just the character. I don't really think there's anything you can do because you can't hide it. I'm not the type to shy away from it. Some people sit back and watch others do it. I just try to make big plays. That's always been my character, and that's always been my persona.
"Working with Coach White, he does an amazing job. You do the Verti-Max, the Box Jumps, all the things that you do to increase your hops, but really I think that it's a God gift. It's a blessing God gave to me since I was in high school. So those are the things I try to work on."
The Friars lost in the Big East tournament semifinals to the No. 4-ranked team in the nation, Villanova. But Ben Bentil didn't see the loss as a reason to sulk while awaiting for the call for the Big Dance.
"Enjoying the moment, traveling with my teammates, the exposure that people are going to see you play," he said. "It's just a pleasure to be here and our brotherhood and being a part of it. But at the end of the day, you gotta execute."
Providence is the 9th seed in the East Region of the NCAA Tournament. In jaw-dropping fashion, during the first round, they beat the USC Trojans 70-69 on a last-second layup that will likely earn a spot in the tournament-ending "One Shining Moment" video montage. They face the East Region's top seed North Carolina on Saturday.
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