For NCAA Division I student-athletes participating in major men’s basketball programs, the greatest challenge often is making the transition from being a top player in high school where academics are not as difficult to suddenly being one of several talented players in a larger program where schoolwork is much more demanding.
Schools have different ways of helping ease that transition, but all seem to have the same goal in mind: establish a winning environment for the student-athletes on and off the court.
“I try to provide the most structure for our freshmen coming in because they are not familiar with anything,” said Anthony Wright, who is Director of Academic Services at Louisville. “Basketball is more intense for them, strength and conditioning work is more intense for them and academics are way more intense for them, so I try to provide as much structure as I can. All the freshmen athletes, their day is structured from probably 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.”
The men’s basketball team at Louisville produced a 3.47 combined grade-point average for the 2013 fall semester, the highest ever for the Cardinals and the highest of the school’s nine men’s sports programs. And this came on the heels of a 3.295 cumulative GPA for the team for the entire 2012-13 school year.
Louisville also ranks among the top-10 percent in Division I basketball in the Academic Progress Rate (APR), which measures academic eligibility, retention and graduation rates for student-athletes.
But that kind of academic success is not achieved overnight, according to Wright. He said he makes it his job to align each student-athlete with a mentor who undergoes a rigorous screening process before getting the job. Those mentors then work with the student-athletes, oftentimes with tutors in individual subjects, as well, during daily two-hour study halls to make certain no student-athlete falls behind in his academics.
“For these students I understand that it’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Wright said. “I don’t expect a lot of them to come in knowing the skills it takes to be a successful college-level freshman, so we take it piece-by-piece, step-by-step.”
That’s a different approach than the one taken by Davidson, where head coach Bob McKillop said the goal for him and his staff is to recruit student-athletes who already have displayed quality study habits in high school and are simply looking to carry them over to college.
“The first aspect of it for us is that they’re very strong academically before they even come to Davidson, so the habits are already there,” said McKillop, whose team has played in the NCAA tournament eight times since he has been coach. “The reason they come to Davidson is because of academic interest as well as the basketball interest, so it’s a combination of both factors.
“We get kids who are responsible and accountable in the classroom, and their grades clearly reflect that. The courses that they took in high school challenged them, so it’s a continuity of what occurred at the high-school level once they get to college. In most cases, they come from situations where their parents pointed them in the direction of academic excellence and that has become part of their fabric and their character.”
“We don’t have academic advisors here at Davidson. We have what’s called professors. They’re our academic advisors,” McKillop said. “If our players have a problem with something, they go right to the professors. That’s part of the community and the academic environment that we’re in: the buck stops with the student-athlete and the professor.”
Most schools, however, employ at least one full-time advisor to work with the men’s basketball teams. At Charlotte, it’s Rachel Ramey, who previously served in a similar capacity at Ohio.
She believes in many of the same academic philosophies as McKillop, but also believes many student-athletes need more of a helping hand as college freshmen to achieve their goals.
“I think one thing that’s important is that during the recruiting process is that their habits that they have in high school will follow them when they get to college,” Ramey said. “So I try to stress to them as early on as possible that with the transition from high school to college, it’s only going to get harder. So they need to start preparing in high school and developing good habits, if they don’t already have them.
“So we have that conversation very early on. Then when we get them early on in the summer, we start working with them one-on-one in our [study hall] center. Actually, as our men’s basketball advisor, from the summer throughout their entire freshman year -- and beyond if they really need it -- I will meet with them at least once a week. We discuss the transition, we discuss the workload, we talk about how they can best prepare for the upcoming week in regards to their classwork and everything else.”
Alan Major, the head coach at Charlotte, said he and his staff work closely with Ramey. And like Pitino at Louisville, the academic advisors who assist the student-athletes are actually considered an extension of the coaching staff.
“Our players understand that the same habits that they build academically will help them not just on the court but in real life,” Major said. “Rachel does a great job, and our approach is that we view her as an assistant coach. The players know that the respect and attention that you give her should be exactly the type that you give us if we’re trying to explain to you how to bust up a 2-3 zone.”
Major added that new NCAA rules governing when freshmen recruits can get to campus also have helped new student-athletes adjust more quickly and effectively.
“One thing that they’ve done is that incoming freshmen are allowed to go to summer school before the start of that fall semester,” Major said. “It really, I think, builds a great bridge to help these guys understand the importance of developing good habits.
“I think that’s the single biggest thing the kids run into, learning to develop good habits. Obviously everything is more intensified. They’re competing against a different level of student than they did in high school, to some degree, just like they are competing against a different level player on the court. But most of our guys are able to do at least one five-week session of summer school after they graduate from high school, and is huge for our guys in helping them get acclimated from high school into college.
“The first year really is that big adjustment year. Once they get into their sophomore year, they kind of know how it is and they learn to adjust to it. But that freshman year can hit you like a ton of bricks.”
It helps all involved when there is a great relationship between coaches and the academic communities at the schools, Wright said. He added that he is grateful for the existence of exactly that with Pitino at Louisville.
“Coach [Pitino] has basically brought me into the family,” Wright said. “It lets me know that the job we’re doing is important and that motivates me to work hard and plan as much as I can to make sure we’re doing as well as we can.
“Anything I’ve ever asked of him, from getting a computer lab or getting laptops for the student-athletes to use on the road, he has been very accepting of everything I’ve asked. If it wasn’t for him and the coaching staff, we wouldn’t have the ability to be as successful as we’ve been. Coach is a big supporter of us and I am definitely thankful for that.”