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LAWRENCE - Trey Burke's heroics may not have been the only thing that led to Kansas' loss to Michigan in the 2013 Sweet 16.
A scientific study by a group of KU researchers confirms what many might have already assumed: Stress - both on and off the court - affected the Jayhawks during the most crucial point of the season.
After testing for hormone levels in athletes, KU researcher Matt Andre and coinvestigator Dr. Andrew Fry believe they've taken a crucial first step in researching the physiology of basketball players.
So what did they find out about KU's players? And could this change how basketball is played for years to come?
Initially, KU forward Jamari Traylor was afraid of his cotton ball.
When strength and conditioning coach Andrea Hudy first told Traylor and his teammates they'd be popping a cotton ball in their mouth every Thursday to collect saliva and check their stress levels ... well, Traylor's imagination went a little crazy.
"We were just all thinking, 'Man, what if we're tired, but the cotton balls say we're not tired? Coach is going to go harder on us,'" Traylor said with a laugh. "Crazy stuff like that."
In actuality, Hudy wasn't looking for a way to pick on her players - or even immediate results.
After consulting with Fry - a professor in KU's department of health, sport & exercise sciences - Hudy had volunteered her basketball players to be part of a funded study that would test their hormone levels for each week throughout the season.
The testing was simple: Put a cotton swab in your mouth for two minutes, let the saliva soak in, then drop the swab in a tube for sampling.
KU's players were tested for 27 out of 30 weeks, starting with the preseason and ending two weeks after their Sweet 16 exit. This season-long study provided comprehensive data on hormone levels in basketball players that had never been published before, even by professional teams.
When the season was over, Andre spent 4-6 hours studying each individual player's samples, starting an uninterrupted process that included spinning them in a centrifuge.
The final goal was this: Find out the testosterone-to-cortisol ratio of each player for each week - a number that would determine when KU's players were stressed the most.
Cortisol levels have been a recent hot topic in sports study, as at a base level, the hormone is catabolic, meaning it tears down muscle.
Because each person has a different baseline, however, cortisol is best tested when compared to a person's testosterone level.
"If testosterone plummets and cortisol is up, then you have a problem ... mood, performance, everything," Hudy said. "But with cortisol down and testosterone up, you could rule the world."
Andre was about to find out that the Jayhawks did have times when they were rulers of the world ... just not during the most important stage of the season.
After completing the study, Andre saw that KU's players had all different types of stress levels, as some dealt with pressure better than others.
One thing was most interesting, though: The athletes, as a whole, had their stress levels peaking and dipping at the same points in the season - enough so that Andre could be 95-percent sure that the relationship in the players' stress levels were not due to chance.
"For that to happen," Andre said, "you have to have enough people having a similar response."
For example, KU's levels dropped during KU coach Bill Self's preseason Boot Camp conditioning drills, but after the players were given rest in the days that followed, their levels rebounded to above baseline.
In other words, Boot Camp was working, as KU's players "supercompensated" after the rigorous training to better prepare themselves for the upcoming season.
Andre noticed other drops in levels at other points in the season. One time was winter break, when Self typically ramps up the intensity with no practice restrictions.
The men's team also saw its levels plummet right before the NCAA Tournament, a potential sign that stress was keeping the Jayhawks from playing at their best.
Interestingly, just two weeks after KU's loss to Michigan, the team's levels had bounced back up to baseline.
"It just shows that we're working with high-level athletes to the point where they can be stressed pretty hard and bounce right back from it," Andre said. "I'm not sure that athletes of a lesser caliber could be stressed to that level and then recover as quickly."
Oftentimes track and field athletes and swimmers intentionally try to prepare their bodies to hit a peak level during the time of the most important meet.
Andre was curious: Could a similar peak-taper cycle work in basketball?
From the study, that answer appears to be yes.
Though that kind of training is tougher with basketball - every game in the regular-season is important - the Boot Camp example shows that the method could work in a team sport that requires both strength and endurance.
Andre believes this also could be a sign that athletes could see a lot of benefit from getting additional rest.
In the study, there was a significant inverse relationship between a player's levels and playing time; in other words, the more time players were on the court, the more physiologically stressed they were.
It seems like common sense, but this finding someday could lead to an entirely different discussion about how college basketball players are used - especially toward the end of the season.
In recent years, the San Antonio Spurs have already started the discussion about the value of rest, deciding to give healthy players full days off on extended road trips. (The Spurs were even fined $250,000 by the NBA for pulling off the move in 2012.)
Perhaps one day, this could lead to a real discussion for KU if - as has happened in previous seasons - it appears to have all but locked up a No. 1 NCAA seed heading into the Big 12 tournament.
Though Self has always adopted a "in-the-Big-12-tournament-to-win-it" attitude, the study suggests that KU's core players might be helped with additional time off.
And if that's the case, could we see a switch to treating the conference tournament games more like exhibitions?
"If I were the coach, I'd say, 'OK, based on that right there, just the preseason peak-taper cycle,' I would then say, 'There's a lot of benefit to giving my athletes more rest,'" Andre said. "In the sense of, 'If I really need them to perform well tomorrow, we've got to take it easier today, maybe even this whole week.'"
Andre completed the study with one other main takeaway: That as a whole, we might not be paying enough attention to psychological factors and how they affect athletes.
Though girlfriend breakups and bad grades might not seem like they would have a direct impact on performance, there's data out there to suggest that players' levels are affected by these factors.
"Absolutely, positively, the psychological component is really critical. Really critical," Fry said. "Is that more important than the physical and physiological? You could absolutely argue that, because that could trump everything."
In the future, more emphasis might be placed not on just keeping players healthy physically, but also making sure they're in a good place emotionally as well.
"For some people, they may need to see the team psychologist. There may be other types of interventions too," Andre said. "I guess it's more just justification for trying to know your athletes and know their specific struggles and what seems to stress them out more or less."
Hudy has already put focus on this aspect in her own weight room. She's created a poster that displays the ideal athlete culture, which includes 17 separate factors. Some items include "training table psychologist," "equipment managers," "tutors," and even "easier travel."
"The practice culture pushes everything. That bleeds into competition, that bleeds into the weight room, that bleeds into lifestyle," Hudy said. "But if you don't have them all together, if one's off, you're screwed."
So what's next following this research on KU's basketball players?
Andre, who spoke Thursday about his study at the National Strength and Conditioning national conference in Las Vegas, hopes it's just the beginning of research done to determine how hormone levels affect performance in basketball.
"It's very important to have that first study, because I don't think any scientist ever gets it the way they want it the very first time," said Andre, now an assistant professor at Wisconsin-La Crosse. "Now having this first study done ... you could read this yourself and look at the study and say, 'Gosh, I really would have rather done this or added this.'"
Hudy, meanwhile, promises to keep the data in mind during her daily discussions with Self throughout the season.
One of the biggest issues with testing hormone levels is the time it takes to get results.
With the current technology in KU's weight room, Hudy has instant data on each of her athletes' lifts. With hormone levels, though, findings aren't available until after the fact because of the time needed for testing, meaning an NBA combine that tests players' hormone levels alongside their vertical jump probably remains in the distant future.
"It's a process right now," Hudy said. "But did I learn from it? Absolutely. Did the guys learn from it? Yes. Did coach learn from it? Yes."
And if nothing else, former KU guard Elijah Johnson appreciates the efforts that KU Athletics - in teaming up with the health, sports & exercise science department - will go to in search of the best information as it relates to athletes.
"At the time, I didn't really understand how much we were doing that a lot of people weren't," said Johnson, who was part of the study his senior year. "But once you leave, you start to realize this is like the league. This is like the NBA.
"There's a lot of stuff that we have here that a lot of NBA teams don't have."