It’s beginning to look a lot like finals week.
Funny thing about the college basketball schedule. At the beginning is the November blast-off, with a flurry of games from China to the Bahamas. After the new year, the conference races erupt, which lead to March. And in between? This dead spot, where game plans have to get out of the way of essay questions and practices are replaced by cram study sessions.
Penn, for example. The 8-4 Quakers won at Dayton Saturday to make it eight victories in their past 10 games. That’s called Big Mo, so who wants to stop now?
But they’re in a 17-day hiatus. Final exams at an Ivy League school take up some time.
“They’re stressed out enough. I couldn’t imagine what their minds are like,” coach Steve Donahue said over the phone. “In particular the younger guys. You can see it. They actually look fatigued. At a place like Penn, they’re doing everything they can to stay afloat.
“I know when we get close to finals, you get bad games before and you get bad performances after. So I don’t even play any games directly after finals. I’d rather them go home for Christmas.”
Hence, no Penn games until Dec. 27. Columbia takes a 17-day break, too. Harvard is out 14 days.
Donahue is working in some morning practices this week, understanding full attendance is not going to happen.
“I don’t worry about it if we don’t get them all. I just want to get as many as we can. I look at it as a stress break from study. We don’t give them a lot of x-and-o stuff. We try to compete a little bit and keep it down to an hour or hour and a half and get them out.
“If we practice at 11 a.m. and kids have a one o’clock final, I don’t want them there.”
He doesn’t mind the long layoff, either. “I don’t look at it as a bad thing. I enjoy it. You can get some recruiting done. You can take a deep breath and see where we’re at. It’s holiday time. You want to spend a little time with the family.”
And life this week for the players?
Meet Penn’s AJ Brodeur, sophomore forward and second leading scorer on the team at 10.8, enrolled in the Wharton School of Business.
That’s him lugging books on the Dayton trip, memorizing details of a presentation over dinner. “I’m right in the middle of it. It’s been a really long week,” he said. “But it’s something I knew was coming. It’s definitely doable.”
“Sometimes it seems like it’s too overwhelming, but it’s never been more than what I anticipated it would be. Nobody ever said it was going to be easy. In fact, in recruiting the opposite was said. That it’s going to be a grind.”
Meet Jordan Howard, Central Arkansas senior guard with a 23.3 scoring average. He was Academic All-American as a junior.
On a recent trip to UCLA, he had a finance paper due and a Spanish test looming, which meant hours of work on the road. Did we mention he found time to score 35 points in a 106-101 overtime loss to the Bruins?
“After the game, it was hard to focus on school, especially when it was a game of that caliber,” he said, “but I had to study on the flight back.”
This week, the digital flight major with a 3.7 grade point average is firing more answers than jump shots. A final on film technical aspects on Monday, Spanish on Tuesday, finance on Thursday.
“The only break I really had was going to the gym today. I had to get a little gym break and go put some shots up. Other than that, it was a pretty lock-down schedule.”
So the heat is on, especially if he wants to repeat as Academic All-American. Which he does.
“That meant the world to me, just to see the words All-American next to my name. I’m trying to maintain a good GPA and do the best I can. That’s always been my mindset in whatever I do.
“There’s always pressure, but it’s nothing I don’t think I can handle. Being a student-athlete is definitely one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done in my life."
So back home, what gets more raves — the scoring average or the grade point average?
“That’s a great question," Howard said. "It probably depends on the day. I’ll have a really good game and they’ll be super happy. Then they’ll see the report card and be just as happy.”
Meet Tyler Seibring, junior forward at Elon.
Last week, he was the third leading scorer with an 11.8 average, for a 6-4 team that had played 10 games in 28 days. This week, the games have ceased, and he’s a returnee Academic All-American and economics-English double major with a 3.9 grade point average.
“I’ve had a few A-minuses,” he said. “I haven’t actually had a B yet.”
Monday meant two finals, Thursday a big paper due in pre-1865 American literature. “It’s going to be a late one,” he said the day before the week began. “I’ve done a fairly good job of prepping the last two days, so I won’t need to pull an all-nighter.
“I think athletes in general, we’re such good time managers, often not by choice. But you know you need to really get ahead of stuff.”
Basketball and finals — Seibring sees a link this week.
“I think it’s very similar to a game, in a sense that when you walk in with a good scouting report and you’re prepared, it’s an excited nervous. The weeks leading up to this have been getting a good scouting report. It’s not nervousness about what’s going to happen, because that’s what the preparation is for."
Elon’s next game is Dec. 17. Seibring's exams will be over by then.
“I’m counting the days.”
He has a lot of company around college basketball this week.