COLLEGE PARK — Should the Maryland men's basketball team make the quantum leap from surprising Big Ten Conference upstart to national championship contender, much of the success will be traced to what Kyle Tarp has done with the Terps over the past year.
In his role as the director of basketball development, Tarp, 32, has helped transform Mark Turgeon's team using a combination of old-school weight training sessions and cutting-edge conditioning drills that he and Turgeon hope make the Terps stronger, tougher and quicker so they can play a more up-tempo style in 2015-16.
"I think since last April, we've created a culture of work, whether it's in the weight room with Kyle or on the basketball court," Turgeon said last week.
"Kyle has had a chance throughout the spring, summer and fall, not only to create a culture of work, changing guys' bodies, but also creating toughness. He's done an amazing job with a lot of guys. You can go through every guy on our team. It takes a buy-in now, and our players have bought into being great."
Said Tarp: "I want to reinforce Coach Turgeon's culture. He's tough as nails, he's a competitor, he gets after it. He's the architect, he lays out the plan on how we can be successful, and I'm the builder. I have the hammer and I've got the nails and we're pounding every day to get us there."
A year in the making
After helping then-incoming freshmen Melo Trimble and Jared Nickens reshape their bodies to compete in the Big Ten and pushing transfer Robert Carter throughout the winter as he sat out under NCAA rules, Tarp turned his attention to others — most noticeably Jake Layman and Michal Cekovsky — this spring and summer.
Given that Layman will be a senior who some project as a first-round selection in the 2016 NBA draft, Tarp has encouraged the 6-foot-9 forward to study the amount of weight players with similar skill sets put on as their college careers were ending and they went to the NBA predraft camps and combines.
"We did some preparative analysis with some of the guys that Jake is similar to, like Chandler Parsons and Kawhi Leonard — and Jake blew those guys out of the water athletically, crushed those guys," Tarp said.
Layman's performance suffered late last season when he had trouble maintaining his weight. After coming to Maryland three years ago at 189 pounds and getting up to 205 by the start of last season, Layman finished the year at 194. He has put on more than 20 pounds that have made him much broader this summer.
"We said to him, 'Jake, this is the one piece that we have to have if you want to play like those guys, because you're in that mold,'" Tarp said. "You can see how recommitted he is and you can see how quickly we got him to  and we want him to get to 218. It's the heaviest and strongest he's ever been."
Others, too, have improved in various ways this summer.
Trimble, who just finished playing with the U.S. team at the Pan American Games, is trying to get more explosive going to the rim. Fellow sophomore guard Dion Wiley has dropped 10 pounds to become quicker. Cekovsky is up 33 pounds and junior center Damonte Dodd has added 10 so he won't get knocked around inside.
Tarp gears the workouts to a player's needs, whether it means ramping up their high-intensity treadmill tabatas to burn fat, getting them to believe that they can lift more to build muscle, or putting them on a high-protein, low-carb diet that is difficult for any college student to maintain.
"The emphasis is always on basketball, that's always going to be No. 1," Tarp said. "We want to give the guys the best opportunity to be successful in the game. When talking with Coach Turgeon, our priorities and our goals for this summer were toughness, leadership and togetherness and guys working with each other."
During the summer when Turgeon is limited to two hours a week for NCAA-approved practices, Tarp and his assistants are with the players as a group for up to six hours a week.
"And I get every last second out of those six hours," he said with a smile.
Given how deep and talented the Terps expect to be, Turgeon wants to run more than he did last season. Turgeon also wants to take advantage of the team's size and the inside skills of players such as Carter and incoming freshman center Diamond Stone.
If there is one question about Maryland, it's regarding the Terps' collective athleticism since they lost Dez Wells, one of four players from last season's 28-7 team to finish their college eligibility.
"When you talk about athleticism, you have to define athleticism," Tarp said. "A lot of people look at that as the above-the-rim guy, the aggressor that Dez was. I look at athleticism as being able to move in a lot of different ways, with fluidity and purpose and get to where you want to go on the court.
"I think we have guys who can do that. Melo Trimble is not going to go and punch it on you at the rim, but he can get to where he wants to go with leverage and change of pace and movement in a lot of different directions with quality and efficiency."
Todd Wright, who was one of the first strength and conditioning coaches hired specifically for basketball and worked for Rick Barnes at Texas and Clemson for 21 years, had hired Tarp as a graduate assistant for Texas in 2008 and 2009 while he was getting his master's in Sports Science and Nutrition and said he liked Tarp's background as a former defensive back at Cal-Davis.
Wright said Tarp is "so far ahead of the curve" when it comes to the new generation of basketball-only strength and conditioning coaches.
"Kyle comes up with movement drills that really look and smell like basketball. The ability to move multi-directionally gives you a larger foundation to execute skills off, and that's where Kyle does an amazing job," said Wright, who now heads the strength and conditioning program for the Philadelphia 76ers.
"I think Kyle's programming is much more progressive than what's mostly happening out there. Without a doubt, he also strengthens the DNA of any team he's around because of who he is as a person."
Said Layman, "I don't think anyone studies his profession more than he does. He knows everything about it that you can possibly ask him and he'll have an answer. I think we're very lucky to have a guy like him who is so knowledgeable. Everything he's doing translates to on the court as well, it's basketball specific."
Tarp deflects the credit to Turgeon and the current group of players. Unlike many of their predecessors — a few were among the five players to leave after the 2013-14 season — Tarp said the competition extends from the court to the weight room at Xfinity Center.
"You can have the greatest strength and conditioning plan, but if I don't have the guys who have the mentality, it's not going to work. We say, 'Be about it, don't tell me about it, show me how you're going to do it.' That's how you get better," Tarp said. "That's when you become something special."
One of the drills the Terps were working on one July afternoon involved carrying a pair of kettlebell weights from one end of the hallway to the other. One player struggled, dropping one of the weights right before he reached the finish line. He had to do it again, and his teammates lined up on each side to encourage him.
"Obviously we're very talented, but there's a lot of things from a chemistry standpoint, from a mentality standpoint, that need to take place to turn that into success," Tarp said. "We're constantly challenging them in a lot of different ways, but again, keeping that perspective that we're trying to become better basketball players."
As the summer winds down, challenges remain for Tarp, who worked with the women's basketball team for a year before moving to the men's team when Turgeon arrived.
At the top of the list is getting Stone into the kind of shape that will allow him to live up to his reputation as one of the nation's top young big men. Stone's schedule this summer — including unexpected surgery for his mother — prevented him from joining the team until last week.
Robert Stone, the player's father and a former Division II All-American, said one of the big attractions to Maryland was Tarp's transformation of former center Alex Len from a skinny, 219-pound 18-year-old into a 255-pound center and the No. 5 player selected in the 2013 NBA draft after his sophomore year.
"I told him during his official visit, 'If you have the mindset to get it done, we will get it done,' because we've done it, we've had Alex and Dez," Tarp said of the 6-10, 250-pound Stone. "If he has that mentality, he's going to be great."
Tarp said Stone was impressed playing against Dodd in pickup games this summer.
"He's been around Damonte and he's like, 'Wow,' just the strength and physicality and his comment was, 'Damonte's had two years with Kyle, I'm going to get that,'" Tarp said. "With young people, it's hard to identify weaknesses. He's been very open that 'this is something I need to work on.'"
Next month, Tarp's duties will include trying to indoctrinate Duke transfer Rasheed Sulaimon into his band of workout maniacs.
"Right now, the culture's great. Guys are not just getting it done, getting through it, they're attacking it and getting better and that's what gets me fired up," he said. "It's not going to be your top guy that you depend on, it's going to be everybody from top to bottom: freshmen, new guys, walk-ons. It's contagious."
By late September, once practice officially begins, Tarp will be able to exhale — a little. By the time the season begins in November, much of what Tarp does will be overshadowed by the work of Turgeon and his assistant coaches.
"The games, the bright lights, they love that," Tarp said. "For me it's the day to day, the grind, that's what gets me going. I love the stuff behind the scenes, with no one watching; me, you and your teammates and a heckuva lot of hard work. That's what fires me up."