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News & Record (Greensboro, North Carolina)
CHAPEL HILL - Amid those cross-country trips and late-night tips, the college basketball players who have practically lived on ESPN for the last week will get up and go to class in the morning.
As North Carolina prepares for a 9:15 matchup Wednesday night at Indiana in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, the game will take place on a sixth missed day of class for players since the basketball season began Nov. 11. The Tar Heels have been to New Orleans, Hawaii and now will play in Bloomington, Ind.
The start of a college basketball season is often marked by an unforgiving travel schedule, giving teams the opportunity to perform on big stages and to gain cultural experiences they might not otherwise be afforded. The tradeoff is that players miss class and, if they've not planned and worked ahead, risk falling behind as the end of the semester and final exams in December draw closer.
Besides missing time for the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, N.C. State missed four class days for the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Wake Forest missed three days to play in the Charleston Classic. Duke played in the Champions Classic in New York City before a weekend trip to the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip Off Classic in Uncasville, Conn.
"I haven't slept in a while," UNC guard Joel Berry said. "I've had to do work ahead to give to my teachers. I had papers due, and we had games and stuff.
"It's staying up late and then having to get up and be motivated to practice the next day, and then you've got to get up and do the same thing over and over. It's tough, but you've got to do it and it's something we signed up for."
In earnest, preparations begin months in advance of trips like the one the Tar Heels just completed, spending nine days in Hawaii while playing four games.
"Like (Coach Steve Robinson) always says, you've got to get your work done early and you've got to work ahead," center Kennedy Meeks said. "That's why most of us are in summer school, just to get ahead of the schedule and eliminate any (concerns) we may have."
Staying on campus during the summer has plenty of benefits for athletes, allowing them to stick with their workout routines while getting ahead academically at a time classes are often smaller and distractions fewer.
Getting ahead, rather than working from behind, is the strategy advised by Dr. Michelle Brown, director of UNC's Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes, and her staff. Brown's department, which operates under the UNC's Office of the Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost, is responsible for helping keep almost 800 student-athletes on track academically.
In 2011, UNC system president President Tom Ross led a task force that directed its schools to move academic support services and tutoring under the responsibility of academics rather than athletics departments.
"They're planning beforehand and already looking down the road to what's coming," Brown said. "If there's tasks, assignments, papers or different things that are due that they can start to work on, they'll start to work on those beforehand so they can have whatever parts submitted before they depart."
Athletes are advised to meet with professors at the start of each semester to outline travel plans that will keep them out of class and work out a plan for how they'll meet requirements. It's up to each professor as to how they'll manage that.
Sometimes that means working ahead. Sometimes that means catching up on the back end. And sometimes, that means finding time in a hotel in Hawaii to knock out an online assignment. On trips such as that one, the Tar Heels travel with an academic adviser from the support program.
Besides independent time focused on academics, the adviser sets aside mandatory study hall time for players.
Even with those requirements, there is still time spent away from class at what can be a crucial time of year, especially for freshmen who will soon experience college final exams for the first time. For players such as freshman Tony Bradley, a number of tutors and advisers can help them maintain a schedule.
"That's different for me, especially freshman year, but I've just got to adjust, just got to push through it," Bradley said. "We've got a person that keeps track of that and makes sure our work is turned in, but that's another adjustment, especially on the academic side."
That's where the academic support team and athletics hope to strike a balance, between what the athletes are missing academically and what they're experiencing away from campus.
The Hawaii trip is recognized as something beyond a usual road trip, with bigger implications for both individuals and the team.
For one, it's bonding time for a team that lost a few key seniors last season.
But Brown said that it's as close as basketball players can get to some of the opportunities other college students experience, like studying abroad. The Tar Heels visited Pearl Harbor, where the 75th anniversary will be commemorated on Dec. 7, and met with members of the military stationed there.
"They're meeting new people, learning different areas," Brown said. "The coaches, depending on different trips, will be able to give them some tours of the places they're traveling to, so they're being exposed to it.
"All of those things, we believe, help them develop into young adults and help contribute to their education and widen the world for them."
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