Monarch Insider No. 5 - Workouts Are well Underway

September 26, 2010
By ODU Athletics
ODU Sports

Sept. 26, 2010

The season may not have started, but the basketball workouts are well underway

Brendan O'Hallarn Monarch Basketball Insider No. 5

For people like me, college basketball season never truly ends. For fans who tune in during November, or even March, it's easy to put roundball out of your mind. It's football season, right?

If the casual fan had any idea what's happening with Monarch basketball right now, they'd be as excited as I am. Practice may not have formally started. But believe me, this year's campaign is well underway.

I spent last week taking in as many strength and conditioning drills as possible. Here's a snapshot of what happens at a Division I basketball school, before the coach even blows his whistle and asks his players to huddle up at the first formal practice.

It's 7:15 a.m. on Monday, and the guys, many of whom you can tell were sleeping quite recently, limber up slowly in the practice gym. They'll be awake soon enough. Strength and conditioning coach Paul Helsel sets out some "ladders" on the floor, squares of rope for the players to run through, and readies some ankle braces that each player will wear later.

Time to go to work.Helsel exhorts the players as they accelerate out of the ladders, one at a time. "Sprint through the cones. Sprint! Think it's going to be easy this year? Last year's team won the championship, but what's this year's team going to do? Wake up this morning!"

Helsel says of all team sports, basketball athletes need to be the best at every type of physical movement. "As far as just pure athleticism, it doesn't get any more involved than the sport of basketball," he said.

Helsel isn't shy, but neither are the team's seniors. Small forward Ben Finney, who's been far more vocal this season, claps his hands repeatedly, shouting "Let's go! Let's go."

Helsel started when he and point guard Darius James were rookies. "We've got an older team now, and they've been through the battles. It's almost more of a businesslike approach now," he said. "When Darius and Ben started, there weren't a lot of seniors around to show them the ropes."

Morning workout over, the players scatter to shower, most heading off to class. At 11, they're back in the weight room. The team will lift four times this week. As Helsel barks orders for a raft of abdominal work, Finney pipes up between reps. "Oh yeah! Gonna have that beach body."

He also takes time to yell over to freshmen Richard Ross and Dimitri Batten, telling them not to cheat on any rep.

Finney agrees he's a lot more vocal this year, as one of the senior captains. "I feel like I have to be in order for us to be good. I feel like our team is only going to get better if everyone plays their role. And my role is to be more vocal." Later that day, each of the players will do individual conditioning work in the gym with the coaches, and the 13 Monarchs will gather to play organized pickup at 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday as well.

On Tuesday, during another comprehensive lift session, new assistant coach Lonnie Blow, whose job it is to help Helsel oversee weight room work, says with a smile to a small group of chatting basketball players that it's time to get back to work. Blow, who came to ODU from Division II St. Augustine's College, is impressed with what he's seen so far from his new team.

"I'm definitely pleased with their work ethic and how they work. Guys show up on time and give it all they've got no matter what they're doing, whether it's weights or conditioning," Blow said.

He says that his style isn't to get in players' faces, at least for now. "For the most part, they know what they're supposed to do," he said. "So it's definitely a high level of expectation here. We've definitely had some success in the past, but we've got to keep our nose to the grindstone, because it's not going to get any easier."

Helsel said besides improving strength and fitness, this training camp is also designed to help prevent injury during the long season.

"You're playing two, sometimes three games a week, so the opportunity to get injured is more than some other sports," he said. "So not only do we try to develop strength and power, we're also trying to improve the strength of the ligaments and tendons in the ankles and knees, places that basketball players are most susceptible to injury."

It's Wednesday morning, and the players are running laps of one of the Powhatan Athletic Complex fields, for a timed, mile-and-a-half sprint. James is out front. He's always out front for these runs. But in the last lap, the rookie, Ross, makes a big move. He actually passes Darius on the homestretch, beating him by half a stride.

With both players bent over at the waist, breathing hard, Ross extends a fist to James for a bump. He gets ignored by the hypercompetitive point guard.

I teased Darius later in the day about getting beat in the sprint ... his calling card. "When I was a freshman, we did another workout after finishing that run. So I was saving myself just a little. It's all good though," he said.

It's Thursday now, and the coaches have broken the team into guards and forwards, and each group works with a coach, on specific fundamental skills they'll need during the season. The squeak of sneakers bounces off the ceiling of the practice gym, as the guards work on changing direction with the ball, and the defensive slides needed to stop an opponent doing the same thing.

I'm tired after four days of watching these workouts, but the toughest is saved for Friday morning. The dreaded 20 in 20 drill. It's 20, timed suicide sprints, and yes, it's as awful as it sounds. I tried it last year (link: and won't make that mistake again.

The players, with minimal fanfare, stand on one of the baselines, waiting for the clock to start. The coaches and team managers spread out between the two practice gym courts, to make sure the guys don't cheat on any of the lines where they'll have to change direction.

The clock starts and the gym's alive with the sound of exertion, encouragement from the coaches, and the players to each other.

These are elite athletes, so most will be able to fight through the 20 in 20 drill.

After Batten concedes, all eyes are on center Frank Hassell. Twenty in 20 is simply unfair for someone like Frank. It's his job to carry around the opposing team's biggest player all season, so running sprints back and forth in a gym doesn't exactly play to his strengths. But he's working hard today. After almost getting eliminated with suicide 13, Hassell gets a second wind. He gets to 16 sprints, but then packs it in. Anton Larsen, who's been running well this month, misses one with two sprints to go.

But the rest of the team finishes the 20 in 20. Keyon Carter runs his last half-court sprint backwards for emphasis. One of the guards runs headlong into a recycling bin when crossing the line, making a big crashing sound.

Then the gym's alive again, with the sound of appreciative applause from coaches. Their boys have done well, and Coach Taylor tells them so. He likes the month of conditioning before a season starts.

"You steadily get a glimpse of what a group's psyche is, work ethic, commitment, and you build towards the length and strength of what you're going to do in the season," Taylor said.

He's far from a light touch, but Taylor said having seniors like Darius James and Ben Finney, who set the tone with their work habits, does make his job a little easier. "Ten years ago, my first year, I just absolutely had to go crazy on every kid, because they didn't understand. Now I've got kids who've been around," he said.

"I still have to keep an eye on everything, but there's more of us keeping an eye on things."

Brendan O'Hallarn, an employee in University Relations at ODU, writes Monarch Basketball Insider for ODU Athletics. If there's an inside "scoop" you'd like on the team, email Brendan at To see previous Monarch Basketball Insider stories, see,