Three months from the official start of practice for the 2014-15 college basketball season, the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels are working.
Playing basketball at the Division I level is basically a full-time job (though the NCAA might beg to differ), and like the rest of the work force, the athletes don’t get the summer off. With most of the team’s newcomers already on campus, summer workouts began in June and will continue right up until the first practice on October 3.
During the eight weeks that summer school is in session, NCAA rules allow the team to practice on-court for two hours per week, with six hours per week devoted to strength and conditioning. That time is valuable, because summer is when players can really work on their bodies and their skills, adding to their game in a significant way.
“[Offseason strength and conditioning] is critical to the success of our program,” head coach Dave Rice says. “I’ve always believed games are not only won during the season, but won in the offseason starting in the spring and then in the summer.
“It’s something that’s become year-round, and you have to be dedicated in order to be competitive at our level. We’re fortunate to have a terrific strength and conditioning coach to help lead us in that regard.”
The man entrusted with guiding the Rebels through their year-round workouts is Jason Kabo, a 15-year staffer who also oversees the strength and conditioning program for all of UNLV’s Olympic sports. Kabo is a noticeable presence at Rebels practice, putting players through their warmup stretches and their cooldown routines, and he’s the point man when it comes to rehabbing injured players.
In the offseason, the focus shifts to the weight room, where athletes can reshape their physique and come back for the next season as new and improved players.
For Kabo, who started as an intern at UNLV back in 1999, the most important part of the job is getting the players to buy in.
“I think a lot of people don’t realize how tough it is,” Kabo says. “You have 15 kids, and some are extremely motivated and some are not as motivated. Some are in the middle of the road. My job is to try to motivate them in different ways.”
“My whole thing is, even if you don’t like the weight room, I’m going to make you enjoy it.”
Kabo counts players like Joel Anthony and Lou Amundson as success stories, as they came to UNLV as underdeveloped prospects, committed themselves to the strength program and eventually carved out NBA careers.
He also puts Khem Birch in that class, including the former Rebel big man as one of his prized pupils.
“Khem is a huge story [for the strength program],” Kabo says. “He came in here, he was probably 205 pounds, and he left at 230 in a two-year span, jumping out of the gym and blocking shots left and right. It’s all about getting kids to buy in, and Khem lifted with me on game days. Two hours before games we’d have a light weight session. Every kid is different, but Khem was dedicated.”
Rice credits Kabo for latching onto Birch and helping him maximize his athletic potential.
“[Birch] was always a naturally athletic guy, but I thought a big part of his improvement for us from the time he got here to becoming an all-conference player this past year was the strength and conditioning program,” Rice says. “A lot of the credit has to go to Khem for adding a lot to himself, but you also have to think about Jason Kabo and the job he did with Khem.”
Even with as much influence as Kabo has on the strength and conditioning program, developing athletes is a team effort. Rice, as the head coach, is in charge of the entire basketball program, so it’s up to him and the rest of his staff to set the general agenda. If he thinks a player needs to work on a specific area (getting stronger to hold up in the post, becoming quicker laterally on defense, etc.), he’ll relay that to Kabo.
From there, it’s up to Kabo to implement the type of workout routine that targets improvement in those areas.
“We’re in constant communication,” Kabo says. “It’s huge. If you don’t communicate, you don’t know what the coaches are seeing on film or in practice, and they don’t know what I’m seeing in the weight room or during agility drills. Coach Rice is great about that.”
One player receiving plenty of attention from the strength program this offseason is sophomore Chris Wood. As a freshman, he averaged 4.5 points, 3.2 rebounds and 1.0 blocks per game, flashing the kind of talent that could land him in the NBA one day. He was also listed at 6-foot-10 and a generous 210 pounds.
With added strength, Wood could be in line for a breakout season in 2014-15. So Kabo and the rest of the staff have made Wood’s development a priority.
The early returns are encouraging.
“I’ve been doing 1-on-1’s with Jason Kabo in the weight room,” Wood says. “He’ll have me doing 10 sets of 10. I must be getting stronger. I feel it, because the next day I’m lifting more weight.”
“I’m pretty far from what I was last year,” says Wood, who is now listed at 220 pounds. “I’m more aggressive. I got a lot stronger.”
UNLV has managed to build an impressive strength and conditioning program under Kabo despite not always having an unlimited budget. Whereas some blue-blood schools may be able to write blank checks to acquire all the newest gadgetry, Kabo has to take a more fiscally conscious approach.
“That’s maybe the hardest part,” Kabo says. “Financially, you don’t always have the means to go get a $10,000 heart rate system to track your athletes during practice to see if their heart rates are spiked up. It’s tough. Sometimes maybe you can get outside donations from people who want to come in and buy that for us to make sure our programs are excelling, but that’s probably the hardest part. If you’re creative enough and innovative enough, you can still kind of modify your programs [to be effective].”
That creativity has served the program well. Kabo recently hosted the Basketball Specific Strength and Conditioning Symposium, which saw more than 50 NCAA strength coaches from around the country converge on the Mendenhall Center to exchange new ideas and techniques.
Kabo says some of what he learned at the event has already been incorporated into the Rebels’ workout regimen, and that willingness to try new things is appreciated by the coaching staff.
“I think it’s a positive that we’ve got a strength and conditioning coach who always keeps us up to date,” Rice says. “And I think as a staff, we’re also extremely progressive and open-minded. There’s no substitute for effort—whatever you do, you’ve got to do it hard. But I think the more progressive you are and the more open you are to new ideas, the better the results will be down the road.”
In addition to training and working out the current crop of players, it’s also Kabo’s responsibility to keep an eye toward the future, making sure the Rebels are up to date on the latest developments in strength and conditioning. New cutting-edge technology is being developed constantly, and it’s up to Kabo to determine the direction he wants the program to move.
“It’s so hard to keep up with the technology, because there’s new stuff coming out every year,” Kabo says. “There’s just more and more stuff. The big trend now is tracking things physiologically. It’s trending toward tracking and live data. We do what we can, but you have to have a massive budget to really keep up with everything.”
Kabo tabs UNLV as being in the middle of the pack when it comes to having the means to take advantage of new technology.
“We do what we can in that aspect of it. We do some body mapping stuff where we record athletes’ movement and track them to see what they’re doing as far as their functional movements. We’re trying to keep up with the Joneses. Obviously some people are doing way more sophisticated stuff than we are, but we’re doing some pretty creative things.”
By finding ways to stay ahead of the curve on strength technology, the Rebels aren’t just getting the most out of their current players, but also making themselves a more attractive destination to tech-hungry and results-driven recruits. All of which in turn makes UNLV a stronger program overall.
“I think one of things that Jason has been able to do is spend lot of time with NBA guys,” Rice says. “He knows what the NBA is doing, so he stays on top of the technological advances. He hosted the [Basketball Specific Strength and Conditioning Symposium] as well, so he also stays in touch with all the top strength coaches across the country. He’s always on the cutting edge. He gets an ‘A’ in that area.”
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