Terps director of basketball performance Kyle Tarp talks about his basketball boot camp that has transformed the players' bodies.

Wherever he went this summer in Baltimore, Jalen Smith experienced more than his share of double takes. Once those looking at Smith realized it was indeed the former Mount Saint Joseph star known to nearly everyone as “Stix,” they often followed by tapping one of his bulging biceps or patting his chiseled chest.

Even Smith’s own mother, Lisa, marveled at the transformation of her once-skinny son as he was preparing for his sophomore season at Maryland.

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“Even when I don’t lift [weights], my mom tells me I look bigger than I did when she last saw me,” Smith said after he and his teammates played pickup Tuesday afternoon at Xfinity Center.

Smith has become one of several poster children for the work the Terps put in this summer at Kyle Tarp’s basketball boot camp.

Maryland's returning players flex their new muscles after the team's last training session this summer. Front row: From left Joshua Tomaic, Anthony Cowan Jr., Andrew Valmon, Aaron Wiggins, Serrel Smith Jr., Eric Ayala, Jalen Smith. Back row: (partially obscured) Darryl Morsell, Ricky Lindo Jr.
Maryland's returning players flex their new muscles after the team's last training session this summer. Front row: From left Joshua Tomaic, Anthony Cowan Jr., Andrew Valmon, Aaron Wiggins, Serrel Smith Jr., Eric Ayala, Jalen Smith. Back row: (partially obscured) Darryl Morsell, Ricky Lindo Jr.

Going into his eighth season as the director of basketball performance, Tarp has helped turn a group of mostly young and physically immature underclassmen into the muscular core of a team many are placing in the top 10 in the country. A few analysts have Maryland as a dark-horse Final Four candidate.

Should the Terps improve on last season’s 23-11 record and erase the painful memory of the last-second loss to LSU in the second round of the NCAA tournament, it might have as much to do with what coach Mark Turgeon’s team did in the weight room as on the practice court the past few months.

“This group’s a bunch of really hard workers,” Turgeon said Wednesday. “It’s good to see that their bodies did change a lot. I think they enjoy the weight room, pushing each other. And of course, I think Kyle’s one of the best.”

‘Perfect storm’

Tarp has had weight-room warriors before — from Dez Wells to Robert Carter Jr. to Bruno Fernando — but not as many at the same time.

“It was kind of the perfect storm this offseason,” Tarp said in his tiny office, sitting in front of a computer that stores some telling stats about Maryland’s physical growth. “We typically see those big jumps from freshman to sophomore year. The fact that we had so many guys in that window [helped].

“You don’t get those results showing up one hour, four times a week. It’s a full lifestyle change and commitment. To have the right kids and having them in that prime adaptation range, I think it’s why we got the results that we did. You give them some responsibilities to execute, and you’re confident it’s going to get done.”

Smith, who came to Maryland a little more than a year ago spreading a scant 195 pounds over his 6-foot-10 frame, is up to 225. More impressively, his bench press is up to a team-high 280 pounds — about five to 10 more than even Fernando did a year ago, according to Tarp.

“People don’t believe me when I’m saying that,” Tarp said. “That’s not a slight on Bruno. Bruno is one of the best movers, best athletes, best kids in the weight room that I’ve ever had. But just to understand where Stix has progressed to, especially upper body, is really impressive.”

Maryland sophomore Jalen Smith, a Mount Saint Joseph graduate, has bulked up ahead of his second season with the Terps.
Maryland sophomore Jalen Smith, a Mount Saint Joseph graduate, has bulked up ahead of his second season with the Terps. (Maryland Athletics)

Fortunately for Turgeon, his transformation has become the norm.

Fellow sophomore Ricky Lindo Jr., who didn’t arrive on campus until a few weeks before class started a year ago and didn’t get the benefit of Tarp’s offseason training sessions, has put 35 pounds on a 6-8 frame, adding definition to his extraordinarily long arms and legs.

On top of that, the 220-pound Lindo deadlifts 500 pounds.

“His development was probably the most accelerated of anyone, because he missed all of his first summer, so we’re trying to make up ground on technique,” Tarp said. “He ended up contributing for us [on the court], so I couldn’t be as aggressive as I anticipated being. His progression was really impressive.”

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Lindo, whose biggest contribution as a freshman playing 12.3 minutes a game was his defense and rebounding, said the extra bulk he put on from working out, eating properly and strengthening himself with sessions in the swimming pool, will help him at both ends of the court.

“I feel like I can make a bigger impact now,” Lindo said. “Just buying into the program in the weight room, I think that helped me. Coaches and the managers are telling me I’ll have a big role this year and I want to make sure I can prove them right.”

Yet another of the sophomores, 6-6 wing Aaron Wiggins, doesn’t look dramatically different. But he has gone from around 180 pounds to 205. Already mentioned as a possible 2020 first-round draft pick with Smith, Wiggins also looks quicker and stronger than he did a year ago.

“It doesn’t look like this kid’s gotten massively huge, because it fits his body,” Tarp said. “His body needed it.”

Tarp goes down the list and can point out how every single member of the team has either gained muscle and weight, or in the case of sophomore guard Eric Ayala shed nearly 20 pounds to become quicker and more explosive going to the basket.

“Our sophomore class, I think kind of we embrace the weight room,” said Ayala, who is down to around 195 pounds from 213. “For the next step in our careers, our bodies are our investments. Freshman year, you go in there not knowing what to expect. This year, we kind of attacked it with a mentality that we’re going to get something out of it. Guys challenge each other in the weight room just as much as we do on the court.”

The LSU bench reacts to LSU guard Tremont Waters' three-point play late in the second half of a game in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, in Jacksonville, Fla. Saturday, March 23, 2019.
The LSU bench reacts to LSU guard Tremont Waters' three-point play late in the second half of a game in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, in Jacksonville, Fla. Saturday, March 23, 2019. (Stephen B. Morton/AP)

Building on last season

It fits into what Turgeon and his players have preached since the excruciating end of the LSU game, when the Terps roared back before losing on a last-second driving scoop shot by guard Tremont Waters.

“I think because they got a taste of the NCAA tournament and got so close to the Sweet 16, it’s a motivated group,” Turgeon said.

For Smith, who finished with 15 points, eight rebounds and five blocks in the LSU game, it was a long way from a matchup at Michigan State about two months earlier.

“After I watched the film of that [Michigan State] game, I saw that I was getting pushed around a lot,” said Smith, who finished with six points, three rebounds and one block in 26 minutes in a 69-55 loss. “Ever since then, I was like, ‘I’ve got to do something to get myself stronger.’ ”

Turgeon said that Jan. 21 loss at Breslin Center — a game in which the Terps went from tying the score at 20 on a jumper by Smith to trailing by as many as 22 — was a talking point going into the offseason.

“I think we needed to get tougher. That’s a lot of it,” Turgeon said. “The Michigan State game, we got handled pretty good physically and on the scoreboard. There were other games that we got handled physically.”

Said Ayala: “When we went to Michigan State, we kind of realized what college basketball was all about. That game kind of let us know what we needed to do if we wanted to be a top-tier team."

Smith said the one area he has improved most — taking contact in the air and finishing around the basket ― is a direct result of the muscle, strength and confidence he has gained.

“Now I’m controlling my body and I’m able to jump into people and make them fall instead of me falling,” he said.

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Lindo, who is expected to share some of Fernando’s minutes with freshman Makhi Mitchell, said a few of the defensive matchups he had last season won’t be as physically daunting.

“The Big Ten is a great league and lot of big guards and a lot of big forwards,” he said, “me being matched up with a guy like [Penn State’s] Lamar Stevens and sometimes you’ve got to front [Ohio State’s] Kaleb Wesson and [former Iowa forward] Tyler Cook, I’ve got to make sure I’m physically there.”

Feeding frenzy

As well as getting players comfortable in the weight room, Tarp said an important part of putting on weight and muscle remains having them follow the kind of diet that requires eating several times a day to maximize their intake of calories, sometimes up to 5,000 a day.

In Smith’s case, 2,000-calorie snack bags were created. Each time he finished one, he handed the wrapper over to Tarp to keep count. He also had three protein shakes a day. This summer, Smith and his teammates added an app to their phones called “Terp Fuel” that puts money into their account for food.

“Every meal that they get, or if they don’t log a meal, comes to me,” Tarp said. “I can see exactly where they’re ordering, the amount of food that they’re purchasing and I have a pretty good bead on nutrition outside of Xfinity Center, which is usually the biggest challenge.”

Said Smith: “It was hard [before], because at times when I’m not [even] hungry, I’ll eat anything and I won’t stop no matter what.”

The ability for schools to provide student-athletes with extra meals and snacks to help with their nutrition grew out a 2014 NCAA rule named for former Connecticut star Shabazz Napier, who said he often went to bed hungry because he couldn’t afford food outside what he had eaten with the team.

“We’ve been able to give them a significant amount of outside dollars to ensure that they’re getting up to the 5,000 calories,” Tarp said. “Knowing the demands that we place on our athletes, especially physiologically and calorically, we’re able to supplement some of those excess calories.”

Tarp still has work to do on this year’s freshman class, which consists of forward Donta Scott (6-7, 200 pounds), forward Makhi Mitchell (6-9, 230) and his twin brother, center Makhel Mitchell (6-10, 245), guard Hakim Hart (6-7) and center Chol Marial (7-2, 220). Marial didn’t arrive until last month and underwent surgery to repair stress fractures in both shins Sept. 4.

“It’s kind of that initial development of all the young guys,” Tarp said. “I think first and foremost is creating great habits. If you create great habits with your recovery, with your sleep patterns, with school and showing up on time, and your work ethic and culture … then the snowball starts to roll.”

Smith knows what’s in store. Especially when it comes to Tarp, a former football player at UC Davis who likes to challenge the players in the weight room as if he were still one of them.

Asked how tough Tarp is, Smith smiled.

“I’ll just say I’m glad he’s not the head coach,” Smith said.

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