“The hum of the treadmill in September” is a phrase that brings a sadistic grin to Winthrop men’s basketball coach Pat Kelsey’s face.
Last year, the phrase, which refers to the beginning of preseason conditioning for Eagles basketball players, would have brought a very different reaction to Andre Smith’s mug. The junior guard struggled mightily with the new conditioning requirements that Kelsey imposed in his first season. Smith reached just 30 percent of the conditioning benchmarks in the fall of 2012.
“It was a shock when he made one,” said Kelsey.
But Smith’s attitude was noticeably different when he showed up this past September.
“He didn’t even say anything about it, you just saw out of the corner of your eye him getting every single one of them,” said Kelsey.
Smith passed all his conditioning tests this preseason. Kelsey said Smith has become more of a vocal leader and that he doesn’t walk around with his head down like he did at times last season. The sense of accomplishment before the season even started seemed to jump-start Smith’s confidence, which is reflected by his 41.5 percent 3-point shooting (up from 38 percent last year).
“I don’t know if there was a guard in the country that had a better offseason than Andre Smith,” said Kelsey. “His body composition, his muscle mass, and cutting body fat and watching his diet and paying attention to his conditioning, his preseason conditioning was phenomenal.”
Winthrop (14-10, 7-4) faces the reeling Charleston Southern Buccaneers on Saturday. Charleston Southern (10-13, 4-6) has dropped four of its past five games, and five of its past seven, while the Eagles, winners of four consecutive games, are streaking the other way. When Winthrop thumped Charleston Southern 85-68 Jan. 11 in Rock Hill, Smith hit 5 of 9 from 3-point range, part of the Eagles’ 15 triples in that game, and scored 22 points.
That Smith hasn’t been scoring much during Winthrop’s recent winning streak is encouraging for the team. He was yoked with the point guard responsibilities last season, a difficult task made harder by the fact he is naturally an off-the-ball guard. But the 5-foot-10 Tampa, Fla., native isn’t having to carry as hefty a load this season, a good sign for Winthrop.
“We have so many weapons this year and we’re so deep that I think that’s what’s made us a really good team,” said Kelsey.
Smith’s scoring average, 9.8 points, has dipped below double digits for the first time this season, but in addition to his accurate shooting, he has a 1.8 assist to turnover ratio (up from 1.1 last year), tied for best on the team with redshirt junior Brandon Vega. Even without scoring much the past five games (just over 6 points per game), Smith has dished out 14 assists with just one turnover. He credited his offensive contributions to another factor, the increase in talented teammates around him.
“We’ve got a lot of great scorers. I just have a lot of people around me helping me with assists, and Brandon Vega is a great guy at that too. It helps a lot to play, but I have a lot of good guys around me.”
The addition of juniors Keon Moore and Vega to the playing squad, after both sat out last year, deepened Winthrop’s backcourt, while freshman Keon Johnson has been an instant impact addition offensively. Senior Joab Jerome plays a pseudo-point forward position, while Christian Farmer and Carlin Bremner are two more capable shooters in an offensively dynamic Winthrop perimeter group.
The Eagles didn’t have quite as many options last season. Smith played 80 percent of Winthrop’s total game minutes in 2012-13, but that number is down to 66.3 this season, a crucial difference as 2013-14 moves into the final stretch of the regular season. The Eagles are 28th in NCAA in minutes played by reserves, a statistical indicator of their depth and Kelsey’s willingness to use all of his players.
Smith’s conditioning work in September suggests he would be able to play increased minutes if needed. Winthrop runs the same conditioning program as Arizona and Xavier, where Kelsey was previously an assistant coach; the plan is a product of former Xavier and current Arizona coach Sean Miller.
The first Friday that players return from offseason they have to run a mile, with different time standards for the different position groups. Players that don’t make their time goal are immediately saddled with two straight weeks of 6 a.m. conditioning sessions. Smith didn’t make his mile time last year and suffered through the two weeks of extra conditioning. He made his time this year.
Every Friday in September the players do treadmill work, and every Wednesday they have to ride stationary bikes and reach a number of different thresholds, including calorie counts. On those Fridays in September, whether it’s 7 a.m. in Tucson, Ariz., Cincinnati, Ohio or Rock Hill, “the treadmills are humming.”
“Our guys, when they hear those treadmills humming, they get sick to their stomach,” said Kelsey. “It’s a sound that I’ve been listening to for years and years.”
The preseason conditioning culminates with the Riley’s Test, the final hurdle on the Sunday evening before the season officially starts. Riley’s Test, cooked up by NBA coaching legend Pat Riley, involves five sets of 17 sideline-to-sideline sprints, a killer examination of a player’s physical and mental fortitude. This year Smith passed that one too.
“He didn’t think he could do those things, and then he convinced himself he could,” said Kelsey. “He just killed it this offseason and I knew at that point he was gonna have a great season.”
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T