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‘It’s a part of today’s athletics’: Inside Syracuse basketball’s new nutrition approach

The Syracuse basketball team has addressed nutrition under Adrian Autry by making a key hire.

Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Take a step into the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team’s locker room and things are looking slightly different from a season ago. Outside of the obvious change in personnel, one aspect stands out.

Gone are the stacks of 30+ pizza boxes from local pizzeria Mario & Salvo’s that underscored the way athletics’ relationship with food changed during the pandemic. Among the many changes implemented by the first-year head coach, the post-game meals are looking a little different for players.

After the season opener and first win of Adrian Autry’s head coaching tenure, the change in nutrition is apparent. Fresh off the win against New Hampshire, Quadir Copeland greets reporters and as he’s peppered with questions he holds a yellowish-orange smoothie in his right hand, stealing sips in between inquiries. The pizzas that once stacked on a table behind the player seating area have been replaced with healthy fruit options: bananas, blueberries, mango, raspberries.

That, and most players elect for specific refueling options made for them individually.

“We all get smoothies after each game,” Justin Taylor said. “Which is good for me. Kind of get that protein back and then a mix of carbs, anything that kind of boosts me back after games.”

Smoothies are prepared for Syracuse basketball players following games.

Pizzas from “Marios” are still an option for players if they so choose, but a focus on nutrition has been brought off the sidelines and into the forefront.

“It’s definitely changed,” Judah Mintz said of the focus on nutrition. “That’s something we didn’t have last year.”

Autry was announced as head coach of the men’s basketball program on March 8. On July 11, Syracuse announced the hire of Alyson Onyon as the Director of Performance Nutrition to work with both the men’s and women’s basketball programs. A quick glance around the ACC and college athletics landscape shows an already established ecosystem of team nutritionists as part of athletic departments’ staff.

Autry has implemented numerous changes since taking over as head coach. With longer practices and a desire to play at a faster pace in mind, he wanted to address nutrition.

“I think it’s a part of today’s athletics so it’s really helped our guys,” Autry stated. “All of our guys have gotten bigger and stronger in certain areas. The biggest thing is they’ve been able to maintain. Fueling is a big part. Nutrition is a big part of something that I really wanted to dive into once I took over.”

Faced with so much cardio, muscle retention throughout the season is one of the many challenges basketball players face. It’s also just one of the many aspects of player nutrition.

“There’s a fueling-slash-food service category. There’s an education category. And there’s a sports science category,” Onyon shares, breaking down the three main components of her job with Syracuse Athletics.

The food service category is as you might expect. Onyon and her team ensure the players have meals prepared after practice, but also sets up breakfast every morning. Meals are managed for the team and players are also worked with on an individual basis. Before practice and player workouts, a fueling station is set up to help the basketball team with nourishment and hydration while performing. The extends to the road as well.

“We have a really good nutritionist in Aly,” JJ Starling said. “She makes sure that we get the right food, the right nutrients that we need. She has meals prepared for us ahead of time.”

The education component happens with greater frequency in the offseason. It’s mostly team-wide education that happens when there’s more downtime. Those sessions focus more on how to fuel and how to hydrate. The sports science category focuses more on the individual athlete.

“Every guy on the team is going to have different goals and different needs based on their size, based on their activity levels, based on their goals. So I will sit down one-on-one with them and come up with a plan individually,” Onyon said.

It’s more expansive than one might think. Players get bloodwork done to test for things like iron or vitamin D deficiency. Supplements are given in those situations. Body composition measurements are taken and diets are developed to help players achieve their optimal performance level. The nutrition team works in close contact with Ryan Cabiles, the Director of Strength and Conditioning. Those conversations help the players perform at their peak. Of course, there’s the injury consideration.

“Nutrition plays a big role in helping to prevent injury but then also if we do get an injured athlete, making sure that they’re going about nutrition in the right way to help with the healing process so that we can get them back on the court,” Onyon shared.

***

Originally from Saratoga, New York, Onyon went on to Cornell for her undergrad and played softball with the goal of becoming a dietitian and work in sports. She went to University of Buffalo for her masters and given the difficulty of breaking into sports nutrition, she took an internship at Texas A&M out of school. Eventually, she worked her way to Virginia Tech starting in the summer of 2016 as Assistant Director of Sports Nutrition.

The eventual opportunity to move closer to home and build out her own nutrition department from the ground up was enticing.

“I wanted to get back closer to home. Syracuse had been on my radar. ... When Coach Autry got hired I had mutual friends — because he was at Virginia Tech a long time ago — and I had friends who were friends with him and basically he wanted to get the ball rolling and get a dietitian in the athletic department. In the meantime, football had hired their first one too last spring. So it all happened around the same time,” she said.

After joining in July, Onyon had an office set up in the Carmelo K. Anthony Basketball Center. She works mostly with both the men’s and women’s basketball teams but not exclusively.

“I would say probably 80 percent of my time goes towards basketball, and mostly men’s basketball,” She said.

***

As well as shoot-arounds being implemented by Autry on game days (Syracuse didn’t hold shoot-arounds under Jim Boeheim), a fueling station has been installed on the cart usually reserved for Gatorade next to the Syracuse team bench. The fueling station is also set up during practices, where players are more inclined to grab a quick electrolyte boost in the form of gummies, various bars, applesauce or fruit cups.

“They love it,” Onyon said of the players. “Carbohydrates are our main energy source. During a game, right before a game, at halftime, we want those quick, simple carbohydrates to give our muscles that energy.”

Syracuse’s fueling station
ZBars, energy chews, gushers, applesauce and a fruit cup

The players also have access to the same sustenance during halftime. After the game, players do have say in what kind of food they want but recovery is emphasized. Still, there are no limitations. Players sometimes order pizza from Marios. Despite their popularity, players are not restricted to smoothies. They’ve also ordered from Carrabbas, Dinosaur Barbecue, Tully’s and have even ordered burgers from Ale ‘n’ Angus. Dialogue between players and staff is continuous.

“It’s an open book. I see and talk with the players every single day. I have the approach of nutrition of getting them what they need as an athlete because they’re not just a general human, they’re a high-performing elite athlete. So making sure they get enough calories, carbohydrates and protein and fruits and vegetables and all the good nutrients to help with their performance and recovery. But along with that, we want to be providing food and educating them on food that they also enjoy and want to eat as well,” Onyon elaborated.

The same nutrition approach is replicated on the road as it is for home games. The nutrition staff travels to away games and communicates with the Director of Basketball Operations, Pete Corsaniti. Breakfast is coordinated in the team hotel. In the past, the Syracuse team has traditionally had a meal service set up via Chik-fil-A following road games. That has remained, with one slight change.

“We added in some fruit this year,” Onyon said lightheartedly.

The main goal is recovery and hydration but also muscle retention to ensure the high-minute players aren’t dropping in weight throughout the season.

The offseason is another story as the focus shifts to longer-term goals, like gaining muscle for more lean players or slimming down for others. The approach depends on the player, but for the most part players don’t want to implement too many changes during the season, unless they’re redshirting.

“She’s done a great job with us so far, just taking care of our bodies. Obviously it’s going to vary on the player, what our needs are, what we’re trying to do. But she’s done a great job for all of us and it’s definitely helped us,” Taylor shared.

While other schools have had nutrition established as a focus in athletics, Syracuse has more room to grow out its nutrition department.

“Coach Autry is all in. He’s fantastic and a big reason why I’m here. He’s a huge advocate for nutrition,” Onyon said, “so that’s been awesome.”

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