Success in athletics is often defined by the ability to produce under pressure.
In the case of National Basketball Association draft hopefuls, there might be no more stressful environment than the NBA Draft Combine, where any player's career might be defined – and his future determined – by how well he measures up in such things as the bench press, vertical jump, agility and fundamental skill work.
A lifetime of work boils down to a weekend of testing and measurements in Chicago. It's not unlike what a future doctor or lawyer might face when preparing for medical boards or the bar exam.
And while the final results might not signal the absolute success or failure of an NBA career, every coach, scouting director and general manager in the league sees value in those results.
With the 2012 NBA Draft just days away, it's worth noting that Arizona head coach Sean Miller and associate director of performance enhancement Chris Rounds have a track record of getting their guys to perform very well when it matters most – at the combine.
In his eight years as a college head coach, Miller has worked with seven assistant coaches, but just one strength coach in Rounds. Together, the two have built a strength and conditioning program that has seen five former players rank in the top four at the combine when it comes to the 185-pound bench press test – how many times one can lift 185 pounds. Last year, Derrick Williams led all NBA hopefuls with 19 repetitions.
"I think our program works," said Miller. "We want to eat right, we want to put in the work, we want to have a comprehensive four-season approach. Our job isn't to make these guys look like body builders, or even to make them the best bench-pressers they can be. We want them to have the longest-lasting career as a basketball player that they possibly can have."
The program breaks down like this:
Offseason (June-August): Because much of the focus is on building strength, players generally lift four times per week, splitting time between the upper and lower body. It's also the time that newcomers are introduced to the program. For some, it's their first real taste of a weight training program.
"The spring and summer are when you are doing the core of your work," said Rounds. We never want to maintain, we're always trying to improve."
Not surprisingly, it's also the time that the biggest gains are made. Since Miller came to Tucson in April 2010, the 11 freshmen to enter the program have gained an average of 10.8 pounds of muscle per man in their first four months in the program. Further, those players have upped their reps in the 185-pound bench-press test by 10 per man in that span.
Preseason (September-October): The goal is to get ready for the start of practice, while accommodating academic responsibilities. The squad generally does full-body workouts three mornings per week, and always as a group.
"That's about a six-week period when we're in that mode to where you're still working really hard to gain strength," Rounds explained.
In-Season (October-March): The most pivotal part of the program. While the on-court efforts are key, the team still lifts at least two times per week during the season – some players may sneak in a third – in order to continue the gains already made.
"Rounds told me a long time ago that you generally lose 10 percent of your gain every week if you don't continue to lift," said Miller. "You could have a great offseason and even preseason, but you start going a month or two (without lifting), you almost put yourself in the same situation physically as you were a year earlier."
Postseason (April-May): A rest-and-recover period after a long, hard season. The lifting shifts back to four days per week, building towards the offseason program, but is not as intense.
This never-ending approach is geared toward helping each player reach his potential. Whether that's adding strength or dropping body fat (it's more often a combination of the two), the goal is to improve each player based on his individual traits.
"Ours is a system of improving whatever the player already has," said Rounds. "You're trying to push the players toward their potential. We train them in a specific way where they lift and take very short amounts of rest to condition their bodies that is very similar to the game of basketball."
Two things have helped the program hit full stride here at Arizona.
The first reason is that the system is fully in place. Now beginning their fourth season in Tucson, Miller and Rounds not only have a system that works, but the results and the expectations to see it continue. One of the biggest hurdles to clear is simply staying on the path toward improvement. As Miller often says, it's honoring the process.
"It takes a number of years to get guys to fully understand what it is to be committed and to making the body the best it can be," Rounds said. "It gives you another tool to teach guys to continue to get better, to continue to work hard."
The second and, according to Miller, the biggest reason is the Wildcats' workout facility. Housed in the Richard Jefferson Gymnasium, the Cole & Jeannie Davis Strength and Conditioning Center gives the team a dedicated space to put forth such an effort. Covering two floors, the lower area is solely dedicated to cardiovascular fitness with a variety of treadmills, stair-climbing machines and exercise bicycles.
The upper floor is exclusively for strength training, and best of all, the entire facility was designed with the size of basketball players in mind.
"We have the finest facility in college basketball for our players," Miller said. "So much of today is about having the finest equipment in a room that allows your team and individual players to focus. We have that now. It's set up for a basketball team. It's set up for long, tall guys.
"We've all done similar exercises during our lifetime, as simple as a leg curl," he continued. "If you're 6'11" doing a leg curl, it's not the same as someone who is 6'2". The machines that we have take that into consideration, and because of that – full range of motion, safety, injury prevention, maximum gains and individual development – we now have safer and more efficient workouts."
Over time, the strength gains become quantifiable, and certainly give an outline of progress made. Miller and his staff generally look at the variables that can be controlled: weight, body fat percentage and bench-press results with a degree of importance. Additionally, vertical leap is a good measure of explosiveness.
"The other correlation we look at is the strength measurements," explained Miller. "It's not all about the amount, but about how much they improve. When they got here what could they do, and what can they do now? That shows that their work capacities are paying off."
Take Solomon Hill, for example. In the fall of 2009, the 6'6" forward weighed 230 pounds, had a 12.5 percent body-fat measurement, a 32.5-inch vertical leap and scored a 12 on the 185-pound bench-press test. Two years later, he dropped four pounds, his body fat was at 10 percent, his vertical leap improved two inches and he scored a 17 on the bench-press test.
Another example is Williams, who may have transformed his body more than anyone is his two years in Tucson. He came into college weighing 228 pounds with almost 15 percent body fat and left at 247 pounds and eight percent body fat. Williams gained 16 pounds of muscle and went from zero to 13 repetitions on the 185-pound bench-press test in his first four months in the program.
"Derrick had incredible talent," said Miller. "He came in here as a young colt, where everything you threw at him, he picked up easily and you could see his talent developing almost every month. It was important to him. He put the time in, and took advantage of a great facility, a great strength coach, and a program that we know works."
Now with a year of NBA experience under his belt, Williams continues to see the value in the UA's strength and conditioning efforts.
"The program was really important to maintain my strength throughout the season as well as heading into the combine," Williams said. "Coach Rounds used to tell us that every week you take weights off, you would lose 10 percent of your strength. That's why you should be training year round, and even harder come draft time."
Williams' first-place effort at last year's draft combine was just the latest in a long line of successes for Miller and Rounds. Derrick Brown finished third with 20 repetitions in 2009, Josh Duncan (26) and Stanley Burrell (21) finished first and fourth, respectively, in 2008 and Justin Doellman ranked fourth in 2007 with 19.
While Williams and Brown have gone on to play in the NBA, Burrell, Duncan and Doellman are actively playing professionally overseas.
For Miller and Rounds, it's not just about helping the current group of Wildcats improve, but ensuring the success of future players as well.
"When you develop guys physically, players can see that the strength they gain is helping them on the court," said Rounds. "Then you have a product and results that you can put up when newcomers come through and really sell what we do here to help the University of Arizona's basketball program."