Travel an ex­tra grind for small­est schools

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - SPORTS - BY JOHN MAR­SHALL

POCATELLO, Idaho — As the bus rolls past mileage signs for places like Malad City, Arimo and Woodruff, the long frames of North­ern Ari­zona’s bas­ket­ball play­ers splay across the seats. Heads rest on makeshift pil­lows of jack­ets and back­packs, legs stretch across aisles, feet rise above head­rests.

Out­side, flurries dance in the head­lights as road­side re­flec­tors flash like car turn sig­nals. Yel­low weed stalks, ev­i­dence of a re­cent thaw, peek through the white blan­ket along the high­way.

Pock­ets of dense fog en­velop the bus, vis­i­bil­ity mea­sured in yards for per­ilous mo­ments be­fore thank­fully clear­ing.

The play­ers are obliv­i­ous to the cold world out­side. Their only con­cern is find­ing com­fort on this open­ing three-hour leg of a two-day re­turn to Flagstaff, Ari­zona.

“It’s pretty hard travel af­ter a game,” NAU coach Jack Mur­phy said. “You want to get home, get the guys some rest on their day off, but it’s a long day of travel on their ‘day off.’”

Travel is one of the most ar­du­ous as­pects of col­lege bas­ket­ball. Hours upon hours ev­ery sea­son are ded­i­cated to get­ting to the next town, buses and planes es­sen­tially be­com­ing play­ers’ and coaches’ mo­bile sec­ond homes.

Some have it eas­ier than oth­ers.

At the high­est lev­els of Divi­sion I, buses park next to char­ter planes filled with spa­cious seats, teams’ sched­ules based on when the run­way is open. Con­ve­nience af­fords ef­fi­ciency: Prac­tice at home, fly out in the evening, play the next day, head straight home.

Travel at the low-ma­jor level can feel like “Planes, Trains and Au­to­mo­biles.” All that’s miss­ing is the train and Del Grif­fith.

Char­ter flights are not within the small­est D-I schools’ bud­get, so com­mer­cial is the only way to go. That means long se­cu­rity lines and clock­watch­ing gate waits, just for the op­por­tu­nity to fold into seats barely big enough for av­er­aged-sized hu­mans.

Six-foot-10 and a mid­dle seat is like 5-9 squeezed into a tod­dler car seat.

“I’m hurt­ing for like two hours and when I get up, my knees fi­nally get back to nor­mal,” said Isa­iah Thomas, NAU’s 6-9 ju­nior for­ward. “It’s not en­joy­able.”

Nor is plan­ning.

The dilemma: Ear­ly­morn­ing prac­tice be­fore fly­ing out or a pre-sun­rise de­par­ture to prac­tice later at the desti­na­tion? For the re­turn, leave early on lit­tle sleep and rest later or sleep in and get back later?

No mat­ter how coaches work it, the play­ers end up tired.

“You have to fac­tor it in,” Sacra­mento State coach Brian Katz said. “You try to con­vince your guys, you’re 19 years old, you shouldn’t get tired from any­thing. But in your mind you try to ac­count for it be­cause it’s a fac­tor for sure.”

The Big Sky could be called the Big Bus Con­fer­ence.

Stretch­ing from Eastern Wash­ing­ton to North Dakota, down to Flagstaff, around to Sac State and Port­land State, the Big Sky cov­ers nine states and roughly a third of the United States.

Port­land State, Sac State and, to a de­gree, North­ern Colorado, are in, or at least near, ma­jor metropoli­tan ar­eas. Ev­ery­thing else is a con­nect­ing flight or bus ride away.

“Some of th­ese trips can be a night­mare,” said Idaho State coach Bill Evans, who also spent 16 sea­sons at South­ern Utah. “It’s a tough busi­ness.”

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