Cloudy, brooding skies enveloped College Station throughout the day on Jan. 4, 2017. After an unseasonably warm holiday season that featured more shorts and flip-flops than heavy coats and scarves, mother nature had finally turned the tide across the state with a chilling northern wind.
The mood inside the Cox-McFerrin Center for Aggie Basketball seemed to match the weather outside, as the A&M men's basketball team was just hours removed from a lopsided loss at Kentucky. To make matters worse, the team's airplane was delayed for mechanical problems after the game, and the Aggies' charter didn't return to College Station until 3 a.m. By the time most could retrieve their cars, drive home and fall asleep, the clock would be nearing 4 or 5 in the morning.
With practice scheduled for early in the afternoon on Jan. 4, everyone seemed destined for a short, fitful night of sleep.
About 90 minutes before practice was set to begin, sports performance coach Darby Rich unlocked the door to the weight room alongside the men's practice gym. The two rooms share a wall that features several large windows. As he flipped on the lights in the weight room, he noticed someone in the gym.
"Look who's already in here working," Rich said, without a hint of surprise in his voice.
Through the weight room window, A&M sophomore Tyler Davis was already dressed out. He was alone in the cavernous practice gym, carefully lining up free throw after free throw and trying to erase the memory of the previous night's events.
"He is in here all the time," Rich sad. "You can't keep him out of the gym."
Davis's work ethic is not something that has come out of the blue. Rather, it is ingrained in the fabric of his everyday life. While the 6-foot-10, 270-pound Davis is quick to flash an easy, unassuming smile walking across campus, his unyielding persona on the court is one that few players in the country can match.
In many ways, it all started with a decision he made as a ninth grader in Plano, Texas.
His mother, Yvette Rubio, moved Davis and his two siblings from northern California to Texas when he was in seventh grade.
Davis had always dabbled in sports during his childhood, but he didn't begin playing basketball until sixth grade. Given his stature--Rubio said her son was 6-foot-8 and 330 pounds by the time he was an eighth grader--many assumed he would have a promising career on the gridiron.
"I thought for sure he was going to be a football player," said Rubio recently, from her home north of Dallas. "Obviously, that's what he looked like. He joined the football team, but told me he didn't really like it. My first thought was, 'wow, that is too bad because we might have something here.
"Little did I know that he was going to grow a few more inches and evolve into this type of basketball player."
Mountain of a Man
Tyler Davis is one of the most physically dominating players in the Southeastern Conference. He was already taller than his coach when he played on his first club basketball team in seventh grade (bottom right photo). His mother, Yvette Rubio (top right), said while she was surprised he didn't star on the gridiron, basketball has become the perfect sport for her son.
Still, even with the addition of a couple extra inches, Davis struggled to maintain an ideal playing weight. Despite that, his on-court abilities helped him land a spot as a practice player for the Texas Titans AAU program as a freshman, and he began playing with and against some of the top high school players in the nation.
While Davis's stature was imposing, his stamina was lacking. Add in the fact that he was competing against many athletes who had been playing basketball their entire lives, and Davis realized he had a small window in which to succeed if he wanted to play basketball in college or beyond.
His AAU coaches and a local nutritionist challenged Davis to excel.
"It took someone telling him he had something special for him to gain the confidence to work harder," recalled Rubio. "Once he realized he had something special and an opportunity to do some good things for himself in the future, he really embraced it."
Davis attacked his weight loss goals with vigor.
"It has been a grind every day since then," Davis said. "I'm still on it, and I have a long way to go."
His diet changed radically, and soon enough, so did his body. It wasn't long before Davis began to overpower opponents on the court. He eventually averaged 15.5 points per game and nearly 8 rebounds for the Texas Titans while helping his team advance to the final four of the 2014 Nike Elite Youth Basketball national playoffs.
Davis' weight loss task was significant. He was told he may need to lose as much as 100 pounds to play at the highest level. For Rubio, seeing her son embrace the change was a proud moment.
"It showed so much maturity," Rubio said. "When he made that decision, I was very pleased because I really wanted him to embrace changing his diet. He knew he had an opportunity (with the Texas Titans), and the opportunity tied in with his drive to want to be a better player like the rest of his team."
As his weight dropped, Davis soared up the recruiting rankings. ESPN rated him as the top player in Texas as well as the No. 7 center in the nation. As a senior at Plano West, he was named Mr. Basketball in the state of Texas by the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches following a standout season in which he helped lead his team to a 33-2 record and a state title.
Naturally, Davis was squarely on the radar of A&M coach Billy Kennedy, who was also chasing a few other stellar prep players in the Dallas area. Davis eventually came to Aggieland for an unofficial visit in the summer prior to his final high school season. A longtime fan of Kansas and coach Bill Self, few pundits expected the visit to amount to much.
Then, Davis stepped into Darby Rich's office.
The two connected immediately, thanks in part to Rich's work with NBA star Blake Griffin. Griffin, a former No. 1 draft pick, was one of Davis's favorite basketball players, and he quickly took notice of the pictures on Rich's desk that showed his two children posing with the former All-American.
Davis also appreciated Rich's honesty and passion for training.
"That's kind of how I knew I wanted to come to A&M," Davis recalled. "I knew I wanted to work with him. We were on the same level as far as working hard. It wasn't just about what we would get done as a team...it was about the little things we were going to do to get me better. Out of all the strength and conditioning coaches I talked to during recruiting, he was the one who I knew would help me the most."
What was scheduled as a brief 15-minute session that day stretched well over an hour. When it concluded, A&M suddenly found itself in contention for one of the most coveted players in the nation.
"Tyler was so interested in the things Darby had to say, and he wanted his feedback and wanted to talk to him more about what everything would be like during the season and offseason," Rubio said. "When we left his office, Tyler said 'I need Darby in my life,' and that was really the start of him making the decision to go to A&M."
It was a crucial moment for Aggie basketball.
High school teammate D.J. Hogg eventually followed suit and pledged to A&M, as did highly-recruited Dallas natives Admon Gilder and Elijah Thomas. Thomas has since transferred, but the remaining three have become centerpieces for Kennedy's program.
Davis exploded on the scene as a freshman, starting 34 of 36 games while averaging 11.3 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. He was a force in the paint and finished the year connecting on more than 65 percent of his field goal attempts. He was also responsible for one of the biggest moments in recent history, when his putback at the buzzer helped A&M to an overtime victory against Kentucky at Reed Arena. The win ultimately evened the conference standings, and the Aggies went on to claim a share of the SEC regular season title, the first title for the program in 30 years.
Davis is the ultimate lead by example player, showing up to the gym early and staying late. He works so hard in practice that student managers often keep at least two changes of clothes at the ready, as Davis has been known to sweat out as much as eight pounds during a single practice.
"He plays with so much energy," Kennedy said. "I almost worry about him because he plays to exhaustion. Even in practice and shoot around, I have to get him to slow down a little bit. He plays at a high level. He works at as high a level as anyone I have ever coached."
Throughout it all, Davis has continued his quest to improve his body. After weighing 350 pounds as a freshman in high school, his weight bottomed out at 255 last year. Since then, he has added around 15 pounds of muscle and is playing this season between 270-275 pounds. Meanwhile, he is playing more minutes per game and leads the team in scoring and rebounding.
Davis scored in double figures in 10 of A&M first 14 games this year, including a career high 25 against A&M-Corpus Christi on Dec. 5. The points have not come easy, as opponents have been selling out to keep the ball out of Davis's hands as much as possible. Double and triple teams have become the norm.
"They are trying to make me uncomfortable," Davis said. "That's where it is big for me to not get frustrated. Fighting back is a big energy-waster. I don't mind being physical, but in our offense, I have to constantly move and post-up the whole possession."
Frustrations aside, Davis knows this season is one more step in his weight control and strength and conditioning journey. To that end, Davis and Rich are in it for the long haul.
"My body still has a long way to go," Davis said. "But I knew going into college that I would need years somewhere with somebody who would be with me and was willing to work with me every single day. That's Darby for me."
Rich said Davis has the potential to be a solid NBA player in due time. Until then, he knows what the Aggie coaches can expect in every workout and practice.
"Everyone always wants players to be a little better than they are," Rich said. "I honestly think that with Tyler Davis, what we see in the end will be his saturation point. He is such a hard worker that he will not leave A&M any less than the best he could possibly be. You can't say that about very many guys, even the great ones. He may not do everything perfectly the way we want or the way he wants, but it won't be because he didn't spend thousands of hours in the gym working on his game. When he leaves here, his sponge will be full."
It's a real pleasure for us to do this, because I think back about all the support Aggies have given me. No one accomplishes everything in life by themselves, and A&M and the Aggie network have definitely been there for me throughout my life."