Looking over a room of scribbling scribes and attentive eyes, Tennessee men's basketball coach Cuonzo Martin said, "As far as our guys are concerned, I like where we are headed as a program. From a physical standpoint I give a lot of credit to Nicodemus Christopher."
Martin could have started anywhere. It was last month's Media Day — the equivalent of a State of the Union for UT and arguably his largest press conference since being hired in March 2011.
He opened with praise for Nicodemus Christopher.
When the Vols take the floor today (TV: FSTN, 7 p.m.) for the season opener against Kennesaw State, Martin hopes fans will see why. Christopher, the team's new strength and conditioning coach, is paying immediate dividends.
"He has done a tremendous job with our guys in their physical development, the athleticism and the quickness," Martin raved.
Dreadlocks swaying, broad shoulders raised, the new coach with the Biblical name piped up his placid voice Wednesday.
"Discipline," Christopher preached, "that's what we do here, fellas."
He paced up the Pratt Pavilion sideline.
"Do it again."
A shortcut here, a mental lapse there, youthful indiscretions aren't missed by Christopher.
Probably because he just turned 26.
That age, though, is very much just a number. Christopher, raised in San Diego, graduated high school at age 16. A degree in health and human performance from Baylor was on the wall by 20. A master's degree in kinesiology with an emphasis on biomechanics and anatomical kinesiology from the University of Texas at Tyler was completed by 22.
Christopher landed at Tennessee in May as a 25-year-old fresh off a one-year stint as the speed and conditioning coordinator at Purdue. His youthfulness raised eyebrows.
"It was a surprise … it just," Christopher said, snapping his finger, "popped out of nowhere."
Christopher's work at Purdue produced results. So much so that basketball coach Matt Painter passed his name along an old friend and former assistant coach — Cuonzo Martin.
Christopher, whose first name stems from the prominent John 3:16 Bible verse, arrived at Purdue in the same fashion.
"I called (Purdue director of sports performance) Duane Carlisle and told him, 'Listen, you've got to hire this guy, I'd do it myself if I could,' " remembered Keith D'Amelio, who oversaw Christopher during a six-month internship in the Stanford athletic department.
D'Amelio currently serves as the assistant director of performance at Nike's headquarters in Eugene, Ore. He moved to Stanford after working five seasons with the Boston Celtics as an assistant trainer and four seasons as the Toronto Raptors head strength coach.
As it stands, D'Amelio is a primary influence, among others, on the concepts being implemented on the Vols by Christopher. He focuses on individualizing all training regiments and studying players' in-game habits to minimize shortcomings through physical improvements.
"If some team is more physical than us, I take that personally," Christopher said. "I want Tennessee to be the most physical team in the country, hands down."
Martin has said the Vols are bigger, stronger and faster.
Yemi Makanjuola is more powerful. Trae Golden is more agile. Skylar McBee is tougher. Armani Moore has put on 18 pounds of muscle.
Then there is Jarnell Stokes. Having arrived midseason a year ago, the 18-year-old still had some baby fat on him.
Stokes now looks transformed. He's rock solid, having added 20 pounds, and sports just eight percent body fat.
"He's throwing up some weight to say the least," Christopher said.
Martin, though, is more excited by Stokes' "explosiveness and quickness."
"That is just a credit to Nicodemus and Jarnell working together," Martin added.
Christopher, who calls Tennessee a "dream job," will be on the Vols' bench tonight for his first UT basketball game.
He makes one guarantee.
"They're going to be the strongest, fastest, most physical and most conditioned team for the entirety of the game."
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn