College basketball: UCF's 7-6 center Tacko Fall is making his presence felt
Ever wonder where to find a jump rope to fit a 7-foot-6 man? The UCF men’s basketball staff faced this dilemma last summer while striving to improve the agility of sophomore center Tacko Fall. Searching sporting goods stores was no luck, and the internet produced nothing. Assistant coach Jamill Jones had an idea. He found a cord clothesline, like the ones in backyards in city neighborhoods. And soon, Fall was jumping rope with Jones and his teammates.
Fall is the tallest player in college basketball, and one of the 40 tallest people in the world, according to ESPN. But he wants to be more than a side act. During the offseason, he sweated under the Orlando sun, in a swimming pool and inside the UCF practice facility to increase stamina, gain strength, improve mobility and make a greater impact in just his fourth season playing basketball.
One month into the 2016-17 season and it’s clear the Senegal native is making the transformation from prospect to player. He's changing the game on both ends of the floor.
The Knights are 6-1 under new coach Johnny Dawkins, losing to Villanova by 10 points in the Charleston Classic finals. Fall is playing 27 minutes per game — 10 more than last season — and has nearly doubled his scoring to 13.9 points per game. He’s also averaging 12.9 rebounds, which is second in the nation.
Dawkins played with 7-foot-7 Manute Bol and 7-foot-6 Shawn Bradley during his career with the Philadelphia 76ers. He had a vision for Fall and shared it with him in a meeting after UCF hired Dawkins last spring.
“As long as he would value the process we knew that we could continue to help him to grow as a player,” Dawkins said. “He had a really good spring and summer, put a lot of time in and you can see the fruits of those labors. We tell our players there’s always gonna come a time when winter is gonna ask you what you did this summer. That question has been asked and Tacko is answering it.”
Fall, who turns 21 on Saturday, was curious and hungry to grow.
“We had good early conversations,” he said. “I realized I could do more than I was doing. They helped with my confidence. Coach Dawkins is a great guy and with his staff I knew they could help me improve.”
First, the staff addressed his conditioning. They wanted Fall on the court for four-minute segments, wanted him capable of playing 30 minutes in a game. Sports performance coach Alex Parr knew he was dealing with a unique player. Fall is coordinated, fast for his size and moves well laterally. Parr devised a training regimen designed to improve Fall’s stamina without overstressing load bearing joints, such as knees and ankles.
“We tried to figure out how could we get him in shape basketball-wise without running him up-and-down the floor like we would a guard or a forward,” Parr said. “We put together several big man specific drills where we added conditioning. We didn’t have him leave anywhere outside the paint.”
The first two weeks were rough, but Fall gradually improved. What started as difficult 30-second stretches grew to four-minute workouts.
Twice a week, Parr and Fall went to the pool for various lower body strength building exercises.
“The track, I used to hate the track,” Fall said. “Wake up early in the morning and be on the track and run with the guys. But they told me they believed in me and I improved.”
On the court, the assistant Jones steered Fall’s development.
Jones spent last season as an assistant at VCU. A Philadelphia native, he seized the opportunity to work for Dawkins and wanted the challenge of helping Fall develop.
In one way, Jones worked with Fall no differently than any other post player. He taught him how to use angles to gain position, how to use his feet and hips to pin defenders on his back, keeping his arms quiet to avoid cheap fouls. They worked to improve Fall’s touch around the basket, and that’s where the training veered down a unique path.
Fall has a 10-foot-5-inch standing reach. He lives above the rim. He’s the only player in college basketball whose shots follow a downward arc.
“I told him the rim is only a barometer for you,” Jones said. “When he shoots a hook shot, it’s going down at the basket.”
Fall spent hours dropping the ball into the basket. He’s attempted 53 shots this season, each from within five feet of the rim. He’s made 43 shots, a NCAA Division I best 81 percent. If he continues this pace, he’ll shatter the NCAA Division I season record of 74.6 percent set by Steve Johnson of Oregon State in 1980-81.
“My teammates believed in me,” Fall said. “I’m the biggest guy in college basketball, they told me there shouldn’t be anybody that can guard me if I wanted to, that gave me a boost in confidence.”
Fall torched No. 1 Villanova for 20 points. He was perfect on 10 shots and snatched 13 rebounds. Still, it was Fall’s defensive presence that impressed Villanova coach Jay Wright. Fall can stand with his heels on the block and reach near the free throw line. When he stands in the middle of the lane, his 8-foot-4-inch wingspan stretches fingertips from block-to-block.
“They have a great scheme with Fall, it's genius how they use him," Wright said after the Charleston finals. "They change up the defenses from man-to-man to zone, he just keeps covering the same area. Whether man or zone, he's doing the same thing, he's covering the same area, but the other guys are doing different things. You've got to figure it out."
UCF leads the nation in points allowed per possession (0.79) and 2-point field goal defense (35.5). Fall’s individual defensive rating is 67.4, which is easily the best in the last eight seasons, per sports-reference.com. Kentucky’s Anthony Davis (2011-12) and Karl-Anthony Towns (2014-15) are two of the finest rim protectors in recent college history. Yet, Fall’s defensive rating is better than either player’s. Per Synergy Sports, opponents have made only five of 22 shots where Fall was the primary defender.
Charleston coach Earl Grant put it like this after watching his team miss countless shots inside: “Now I realize how much of an impact that kid makes, because he just changes the game with his presence. Having him in the game, we couldn’t get any 2-point baskets.”
There’s still work ahead. Fall is 11-of-34 on free throws, although he made UMass’ intentional fouling strategy backfire by burying two clutch shots in the final minutes of the Knights’ most recent victory.
Dawkins wants to continue running the halfcourt offense through Fall, who must continue adding lower body strength so he can hold his position near the basket.
“I’m just improving, enjoying the process, at the end of the day I still have a lot to work on” Fall said. “This year I think we can accomplish big things, this team, I’m really looking forward to what we can do.”