KNOXVILLE — Tennessee basketball fans had better get used to hearing the name Nicodemus Christopher. The Vols’ new strength coach is going to play a big part in their success this season.
That much was evident at Tennessee’s media day on Thursday. To a man, the Vols looked chiseled—bigger, but leaner. More muscle mass, less body fat. Could that formula equal more wins?
Count on it. Especially the way coach Cuonzo Martin wants his team to play. He was brought up in Gene Keady’s Purdue system, which features relentless, physical, man-to-man defense and a motion offense. Martin’s players have to be strong and in top condition to contribute. It’s no coincidence Martin found a strength coach who knows the system—Christopher came from Purdue, where he served Boilermakers’ coach Matt Painter, another Keady disciple, as speed and conditioning coordinator.
Martin treats his strength coaches differently than other coaches might. Christopher’s office is in the basketball complex, along with the rest of Martin’s staff.
“My vision of a strength coach is to be one of my assistants,” Martin said. “His title says strength and conditioning, but for me, he’s an assistant coach. He’s in the office with us. He has the pulse of those guys in the weight room. We all need to be on the same page in dealing with our players. Not just one or two guys. Everybody needs to know what’s going on.”
It’s obvious what Christopher has going on, just by seeing the players, and he didn't even get started with his program until June after getting hired on May 31. Senior guard Skylar McBee looks like a strong safety; as a former high school football player, he was naturally inclined toward intense weight training. Sophomore power forward Jarnell Stokes still weighs 265 pounds, but his body fat is down to less than eight percent. Sophomore forward Yemi Makanjuola is bigger, but he’s also jumping higher, which makes him a more explosive finisher around the rim.
This is all part of Christopher’s grand plan. He doesn’t sacrifice strength for speed, and vice versa.
“I like strong, physical athletes,” Christopher said. “I think if you build a good foundation of strength, power’s gonna come, speed’s gonna come. All that happens once you build a good foundation of strength.
“I’ve really spent a lot of time—the majority of my time—getting these boys as strong as possible. Every time we come in the weight room, we do total body lifts. We’ll never have an upper body day and then a lower body day. We’ll always have some type of Olympic lift to work on explosiveness. At the same time we’re working on strength. I took a lot of time just teaching them how to lift weights. Then just building that strength.”
The Vols’ increased strength and athleticism has given them a certain degree of mental toughness as well.
“You’ve got to be mentally tough to push those loads,” Christopher said.
Martin loves that kind of talk. Toughness is a topic he mentions in almost every conversation. It’s a key component to his system.
“Nicodemus has brought a level of mental and physical toughness in the weight room,” Martin said. “He’s getting those guys to compete at a high level. He had to get them to believe in him. And they do believe in him; they want to work with him.
“He demands it, and he also backs it up. He can also lift the same weights or heavier weights than our players are lifting. So he’s a guy who can get in there. I think that really helps.”
Christopher has a simple goal. And judging by the sight test, he’s a long way toward accomplishing it already.
“Sometimes people say, ‘they’re basketball players, why are they getting that strong?’ ” Christopher said. “I think it’s necessary. The game is getting more physical. If we go out there and we’re getting pushed around and bullied around, I take that personally. I want my boys to be the strongest, most physical team on the court.”