Before facing the University of Kentucky in the Elite Eight, a Baylor University assistant basketball coach saw forward Quincy Acy poring over some classwork late at night.
The Bears were preparing for their biggest game of the season the next day at Atlanta’s Georgia Dome. But Acy also had to get a paper done for one of his classes.
“Quincy was a senior trying to finish up a paper that night,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “I loved it because it showed he was not just playing basketball, he’s working toward getting a degree.”
With both the Baylor men’s and women’s basketball teams playing deep into the NCAA tournament, the players are constantly juggling the demands of their games and classwork.
It’s tough enough during the regular season, but it’s even harder during the postseason when highly successful teams are on the road for several days every week as they advance in the NCAA tournament.
There hasn’t been a more successful college basketball program than Baylor this season. The unbeaten Lady Bears are playing in the Final Four against Stanford tonight in Denver, while the Bears finished their season with an 82-70 loss to No. 1 overall men’s seed Kentucky last weekend in the Elite Eight.
Baylor officials try to make travel as easy as possible by taking charter flights throughout Big 12 play and the NCAA tournament instead of commercial flights.
“I don’t know of any coach that plays at this level on the women’s or men’s side that can go commercial anymore,” Baylor women’s basketball coach Kim Mulkey said. “You can’t have the kids miss that much class time. It’s way too grueling on your body, and there’s the mental part of it with the stress and airports and screening. Charters are absolutely the way to go.”
During the regular season, the Baylor men’s and women’s teams set up their own charter flights on planes that carry 50 to 60 people. While a commercial round-trip flight from Baylor to Iowa State could take three full days because of airline schedules, the team can fly on a charter from Waco to Ames in two hours on the eve of the game and fly back after the game.
Instead of missing three days of class, the players will miss one. Charter flights are routine in major conferences like the Big 12, the Big Ten and the ACC, but not as common in smaller conferences.
“We’re very blessed to be in the Big 12 where schools charter during conference play and students don’t have to miss as much class,” Drew said. “You can go to class on a Monday, practice that afternoon, fly out and play the game the next day. You can fly back home and be in your own bed by midnight.”
Baylor makes sure its athletes enjoy the charter flights with roomy seats and constant rounds of snacks throughout the flight.
During tournament play, the NCAA provides travel arrangements, including flights, bus travel at the game site and hotel accommodations. Because Baylor’s travel party includes its courtside band players and spirit squad, the planes often are big enough to carry 130 to 150 people.
Different band and spirit squad members can be taken to each round of the tournament depending on each student’s needs. Some students might not be able to make each round of the NCAA tournament due to their class loads.
“It’s not always the same consistent group,” said Paul Bradshaw, Baylor’s senior associate athletic director for internal affairs. “They’re both kind of mixed and matched.”
During Big 12 play, the team’s routine often is the same for every road trip with meals, game preparation sessions and study hall time included in the pregame schedule.
But there are many more media and social demands for the players and coaches during NCAA tournament play.
At the women’s Final Four, Baylor arrived Thursday night in Denver. On Friday, the team practiced in the morning, went through rounds of NCAA and ESPN interviews during the afternoon, and were guests at a formal welcome program for the teams in the evening. That was followed by a study hall and a film session.
On Saturday, the teams practiced in the early afternoon at the Pepsi Center followed by a press conference and autograph session. After dinner, the Lady Bears took part in a pep rally at their hotel.
There also was another study hall planned for the players. Baylor brings tutors on the road to help the players with their studies.
“It’s mandatory to bring books on the road,” Baylor forward Destiny Williams said. “If we get too far behind, we have tutors there to help us. I think we do a good job of managing basketball and studying. Coach Mulkey makes sure we don’t get overwhelmed.”
After so much pregame activity, tonight’s semifinal game between Baylor and Stanford might be a relief for the players.
“At some places, there’s down time, but not at the Final Four,” Mulkey said. “You have to make sure they don’t overpractice and be in the film room too long. You have to make sure they eat well and sleep well. You throw in a little bit of study hall and a little bit of fun.”
After Acy worked on his paper last weekend, he collected a game-high 22 points and grabbed eight rebounds in Baylor’s loss to Kentucky. It was a fitting performance by Acy in his final college game.
But Drew was just as proud of how Acy squeezed in his classwork amid Baylor’s demanding NCAA tournament schedule.
“It’s pretty much a full-time job,” Drew said. “There’s definitely not much free time for those who want to be successful.”
Tribune-Herald staff writer Cindy V. Culp contributed to this report.
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