LOS ANGELES — A little more than an hour after the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team had opened the NCAA tournament with a victory over Coastal Carolina last Friday night, Frank Kaminsky was catching up with family and friends in the lobby of the Embassy Suites in downtown Omaha, Nebraska.
The mingling stopped abruptly when Kaminsky received a text message from strength and conditioning coach Erik Helland instructing the senior center to make his way to a meeting room, where food was being served for the Badgers.
Chit-chatting could come later. Right now, Kaminsky had to eat.
Kaminsky told the story a day later without a tinge of bitterness in his voice. In fact, Kaminsky was using the anecdote to illustrate how much Helland has meant to his development.
“He’s on top of us, he’s looking out for us and how our bodies are feeling and what we need to be eating,” Kaminsky said. “It’s awesome to have someone like that around so you know that you have someone who’s going to be harsh on you when you need it.”
There’s no question Kaminsky is stronger and in better condition this season, but Helland’s work goes far beyond those two words in his job title.
Working in concert with athletic trainer Henry Perez-Guerra, Helland leaves no stone unturned to get the Badgers ready for each practice and each game.
A lot has gone into the most successful two-year run in program history — great players and a veteran coaching staff led by a likely Hall of Famer in Bo Ryan are two key ingredients — but those inside the program will tell you Helland’s fingerprints are all over a stretch that includes 63 victories, including six in the NCAA tournament.
Both of those totals could grow on Thursday night when the top-seeded Badgers (33-3) play fourth-seeded North Carolina (26-11) in a West regional semifinal at Staples Center. Tipoff is at 6:47 p.m.
“He’s the best strength coach in the country, for sure,” sophomore point guard Bronson Koenig said. “He’s just great at what he does.”
Outside the box
One of the challenges for UW this week as it tries to win two games and book its second consecutive trip to the Final Four is playing a game two time zones away from home on a short turnaround after beating Oregon 72-65 in a Round of 32 game on Sunday night in Omaha.
The Badgers know they’re in good hands with Perez-Guerra and Helland, who spent more than two decades working in the Chicago Bulls’ organization and has introduced some cutting-edge technology to aid UW’s recovery process.
“The on-the-court thing and what goes on in the weight room is important, but there are so many other pieces that go with it with the recovery and the rest,” UW associate head coach Greg Gard said. “Erik’s brought a lot of things that we’ve really been able to add and improve in our program.”
Last season, his first at UW, Helland would gather information from each player and enter it into an Excel spreadsheet to help him track their workloads and what kind of stress their bodies were under.
This season, each of the Badgers has an application on his phone called MetriFit, which handles the information-gathering process for Helland. Each morning, players can rate things like muscle soreness, sleep duration, sleep quality, nutrition and their mood on a 1-to-5 scale with a swipe of their finger.
Helland and Perez-Guerra can use that information to determine if players are overstressed. At the very least, it can trigger a conversation in which Helland can find out if players are adhering to good eating and sleeping habits. In some cases, it might be a red flag to Helland and Perez-Guerra that a player might be in need of extra treatment or simply some rest.
“Coach is always talking about valuing the details,” Helland said of Ryan, who has the Badgers in the Sweet 16 for the seventh time in 14 seasons. “It’s a really comfortable place for me because I have a similar philosophy about these types of things. The little things do matter. These games come down to fractions, and when you value them, I think you have the best chance to have a good outcome.”
‘Bo trusts Erik’
It’s clear Helland has Ryan’s ear. Ryan has cut back UW’s practice schedule — whether it’s giving the players the day off completely or cutting back on possessions — more this season than any other in recent memory.
The reduced load has helped. No team is completely fresh at this point of the season, but a UW starting group that has logged a lot of minutes has been able to find a second gear on multiple occasions during the postseason.
“I think Bo trusts Erik,” said John Dettmann, UW’s head of strength and conditioning. “He understands his experience level. He knows that when Erik’s saying it, it’s not fluff. He’s coming to him with the facts.”
After longtime strength and conditioning coach Scott Hettenbach’s contract wasn’t renewed following the 2012-13 season, Dettmann set out to make a home-run hire and thought immediately of Helland.
Helland, who grew up in Edgerton and attended UW-Eau Claire, had a great job in an organization that produced six NBA titles during the Michael Jordan era. But the grind of an 82-game regular season took Helland away from his family too often, and the idea of moving to a college program was intriguing.
When Helland accepted UW’s offer, Dettmann felt like he wanted to do cartwheels. He’s even happier with that decision now.
“When I watch our team play, I see Erik’s work,” Dettmann said. “Some people can’t maybe see (the) down-to-the-minute detail that I might, but I see it. I see it in their physicality, I see it in their style of play, I see it in how effective they are. I can see his work.”
Just look at Kaminsky, who has gone from averaging 4.2 points in 10.3 minutes per game as a reserve to the likely national player of the year in two seasons. A lot of hard work on Kaminsky’s part and good coaching from Ryan and his staff played major roles in that transformation, but Helland’s impact can’t be discounted.
“I’ve never had someone like him before,” Kaminsky said. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”