NCAA Tournament

March Madness athletes balance basketball with academics at tournament time

Rhode Island guard Jeff Dowtin walks off the court after his team was defeated 75-72 by Oregon in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento. The Rams’ players are expected to return home early Monday and attend classes soon after getting home.
Rhode Island guard Jeff Dowtin walks off the court after his team was defeated 75-72 by Oregon in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento. The Rams’ players are expected to return home early Monday and attend classes soon after getting home. rpench@sacbee.com

The NCAA Tournament can be a hectic time for the teams involved, between traveling and preparing for unfamiliar opponents.

For the players, there’s an added aspect: keeping up with their normal schoolwork.

Take Rhode Island.

The Rams tipped off against Oregon in a second-round game at Golden 1 Center on Sunday at 4:10 p.m. Pacific Time. Afterward, they were scheduled to take an overnight flight home leaving Sacramento at 9:10 p.m.

The team would get home around 6 a.m. local time Monday – in time for several players to make their 9 a.m. academic obligations.

“And they’re going,” said Rhode Island academic adviser Kristen Casamento.

That included senior forward Kuran Iverson, who has an internship working with first- and second-graders at a school near the Rhode Island campus.

“They call him ‘Mister Kuran,’ ” Casamento said. “I told him, I was like, ‘You have to go.’ And he goes, ‘I’m going to be so tired.’ ”

I know that they’re so into everything that’s going on right now and so excited. But they’re still students, and that’s why it’s ‘student-athlete.’ The student always comes first.

Rhode Island academic adviser Kristen Casamento, on the players fulfilling their studies during the NCAA Tournament

The Rams will be a bit more fatigued than they wanted after losing 75-73 in the final seconds to Oregon, players slowly walking off the floor, some maybe for the last time as athletes.

With Rhode Island in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 18 years, Casamento has also had a busy month keeping players on top of academics while on the road. The university was on spring break this past week, but Casamento traveled with the team to Sacramento to administer homework and instruction.

“I know that they’re so into everything that’s going on right now and so excited,” Casamento said. “But they’re still students, and that’s why it’s ‘student-athlete.’ The student always comes first.”

Casamento has worked with Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley for seven years, including Hurley’s two seasons coaching at Wagner College. She coordinates with Rams Director of Basketball Operations Tyron Boswell to fit academic work in with basketball obligations when the team is on the road.

Even with the possibility of the team flying to Kansas City on Tuesday for an appearance in the Sweet 16, Casamento said players would be in the classroom Monday.

“It’s important for when they’re there to go to class,” she said, “and they know that.”

Bruins too – UCLA sophomore guard Aaron Holiday recorded a career-high 11 assists in the Bruins’ first-round win over Kent State at Golden 1, a game that finished well after 9 p.m. Friday. Afterward, Holiday returned to the team hotel and hit the books. He and teammates had exams to take Saturday morning, UCLA coach Steve Alford said.

“They’re students first, and they get that,” Alford said. “All of the stuff we do in film and everything is organized around what they have to do academically.”

Alford said preparing for tournament games when it’s finals time for many athletes is “a unique dynamic,” but the Bruins players have “done a good job all year of taking care of that (academics) first.”

“Sometimes you don’t hear those stories,” Alford said, “but that’s part of being a student-athlete.”

Big number – The return of March Madness to Sacramento for the first time since 2007, when it was held at Arco Arena, proved to be a successful draw for Golden 1 Center.

Sunday’s second-round games were sold out, drawing just over 16,700 fans, said on-site media coordinator Brian Berger of Sacramento State, the host school for the event. More than 55,000 fans attended the three days of NCAA events, including Thursday’s open practices and Friday’s first round, Berger said.

Berger and staff issued 320 media credentials, not including the 90 for national TV.

Return dates – Kings president Chris Granger said bids have been submitted for NCAA rounds for 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022. About the only people disappointed with the experience, it seems, were the fans whose teams lost.

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