A sellout crowd of more than 18,000 fans filed into Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis Friday night to watch Dayton and Wichita State battle in the NCAA tournament’s first round. Millions more tuned in from home as the Shockers pulled away in an entertaining 64-58 victory.What fans didn't see was a much quieter scene days before the Big Dance started. In each team's hotel, dining room or conference area, student-athletes took time out of a host of other commitments to take advantage of study halls. They are, after all, student-athletes.
“You’ve got 15 or something teammates that you want to goof around with and you’re thinking about the game the next day and thinking about your family, so it can be difficult to maintain your focus,” Wichita State redshirt senior sports management major Zach Bush said. “But the guys pull it together and get it done.”
“The older guys try to keep the younger guys focused and on top of their work when it comes down to tournament time,” Dayton senior media production major Kyle Davis said. “At the end of the day for most of us, basketball is everything, but we still need to get that education.”
With finals just around the corner for many schools, staying caught up with classwork is as critical as on-the-court performances for student-athletes. Of course, the greater success your team has in tournament play, the more class time is missed.
So how do student-athletes find the right balance?
Once on site about two days prior to game day, tournament preparation quickly begins. While every school institutes its own schedule, there are consistencies in routines: early wake-up calls, quick breakfasts, film sessions, practice at either the host site or another local arena, treatment, media sessions ... the schedule is packed. The media sessions alone can last as much as two hours. For teams unfamiliar with this stage, it can be daunting.
“I remember when we were in L.A. for the Sweet 16 [in 2013], there was a day where we spent probably two hours, if not more, just hanging out in the locker room just waiting for everyone to get done with the media,” Bush said.
Bush, a walk-on, was the lone holdover from the Shockers’ 2013 Final Four team and participated in his fourth NCAA tournament this season. The Shockers were knocked out in Sunday's second round to No. 2 seed Kentucky.By the time a team wraps up at the arena and gets back to its hotel, most of the day is spent. But traveling academic advisers still have work to do to find time for study hall and one-on-one meetings.
“One misperception is that there’s a lot of downtime when student-athletes are in the tournament. And there isn’t,” said Beth Flach, Dayton’s academic coordinator who specifically works with the men’s and women’s basketball teams.
Flach has been an academic coordinator for 17 years, including the past 11 at Dayton. She travels with the men’s team during postseason play, which included a fourth-straight berth this season. She prefers to keep study sessions to smaller groups. She says avoiding a “cookie cutter approach” allows her to work extensively with those that need the most assistance.
“What it usually turns into is me checking the itinerary and getting with someone in between whatever else they have going on,” Flach said. “It may be pulling one student aside to set up a certain time to take a quiz or maybe having an advising session with somebody because we ran into a road block with order of classes.”
Gretchen Torline, the director of academics for men’s basketball at Wichita State for the past 27 years, has a similar one-on-one approach to go along with hour-and-a-half study halls that she fits in at least every other day. In this setting, phones are taken away and student-athletes are situated at different tables to ensure greater focus.
“I’ve been doing this a long time so I kind of know what works. I really am like the mom that travels with the team,” Torline said. “I have to talk to them and remind them, ‘Remember that basketball is wonderful but at some point it’s going to end.’ You have to get your degree. That’s the most important thing.”
Out in the Midwest region, the focus was similar for Miami (Fla.), which played in its second straight NCAA tournament after a Sweet 16 run in 2016.
“Essentially this is the time of the season that we prepare all season for,” Miami senior sports administration major Davon Reed said. “Once we get here it’s harder to focus on school because it’s such an important time basketball-wise. But still, as a student-athlete, you have to balance both.”
Reed is a perfect example of a student-athlete excelling in both aspects. On the court, he was the Hurricanes’ leading scorer at 15 points a game. Off it, he was named the ACC’s top scholar-athlete of the year and is a three-time ACC academic team member.
This year was a little different for Reed, who is set to graduate in May and is mostly focused on his internship right now; he works at the school’s sports marketing department. But he has been known to take full advantage of any free time on the road to get ahead on schoolwork.
“He’s a guy I’ve seen at 10 or 11 p.m. on a private plane heading back to campus and he’s doing schoolwork on the plane. Everyone else might be asleep, coaches may be asleep and he’s got his light on and working on his schoolwork,” associate head coach Chris Caputo said. “I really commend him and student-athletes in his position. It takes a lot of discipline at a young age to be able to handle that type of workload.”
Maintaining a line of communication between student-athletes, advisers and professors is paramount throughout tournament play. Whether it’s chasing down lecture information or making up exams, both student-athletes and their advisers have to be on top of it.
“Being away from school, it’s a lot more difficult in terms of resources," Virginia redshirt junior Devon Hall said. Hall already has earned his bachelor's degree in media studies and is now a graduate student in UVA's professional development program.Some advisers, like Virginia director of academics T.J. Grams, can help when they are given permission to proctor exams on the road.
“What we try to do is work within the expectations of each instructor,” Grams said. “We have policies in place where we work with instructors to make sure academic integrity is a priority. If I’m proctoring a test when we’re on the road, if for some reason the instructor isn’t comfortable with that or prefers him to take it before or after, we leave that up to each individual instructor.”
Ultimately, it’s up to professors whether these officials can proctor exams or not. The options include arranging for student-athletes to take the test before or after the team travels.
Once tournament play is over, it’s important to keep the lines of communication open, especially for teams that advance deep into the bracket. Awaiting student-athletes back on campus is the challenge of making up for lost time and preparing for finals.
“It’s always challenging trying to get back into the groove of the work,” Davis said. “The better relationship you have with your teachers, the more they understand what you’re going through and the more they try to help you as you come off the tournament run.”“You’re running on adrenaline going through the tournament, especially that Final Four year,” Torline added. “They miss spring break, so in their minds they think, ‘Well, the season’s over so now I get to have some time off.’ And really, it’s a critical point in the semester, so it’s really time when I have to stay on them to say, 'You can’t [let up]'”
In the end, student-athletes and academic advisers alike agree that the daily grind a student-athlete faces while on the road for the NCAA tournament can get overlooked by the general public that just sees the on-the-court product. But they embrace this challenge as a “privilege.”
“This is honestly what we step into,” Hall said. “If we’re going to be student-athletes, the student comes first.”
“It’s chaotic, it’s hectic, it’s a quick turnaround, it’s a lot of stress,” Bush added. “But at the same time, it’s one of the most special times in your life. It’s an atmosphere and experience that you can’t describe unless you’ve been in it.”