"The team that wakes up the best will win."
I admit to telling my team that, but I believed it, as well. Through the years, my teams played games at all hours, including at midnight, and how I prepared them, regardless what time the games were, was the most important thing. Often, the key to coaching a team is to not overreact to adversity and keep the routine of a game day as normal as possible. If you give players an excuse to complain about the time of a game, they will.
Tuesday is ESPN's fourth annual College Hoops Tip-off Marathon, with games being played over 25 consecutive hours. Drexel and Rider will tip off at 6 a.m. on the East Coast. The coaches of those two teams will have to plan for curfews, wake-up calls, pregame meals and travel to the arena in addition to preparing for their opponents. It's certainly going to be an unusual challenge.
Twenty years ago, in an effort to generate interest in his basketball program, then UMass basketball coach John Calipari badgered ESPN into televising games from the Amherst campus. ESPN agreed, but only if Calipari's team was willing to play at midnight. He consented, turning the atmosphere at the Friday night games on a great college campus into a carnival-like event. The exposure, along with a very good team, put the Minutemen on the national map.
When UMass offered my Manhattan College team a chance to play a nationally televised game at midnight on ESPN, we jumped at it. I understood the ramifications of playing a great team at an odd hour, but the exposure was too good to pass up.
Waiting around all day was a challenge, so we let the team sleep in until 2 p.m. in order to shorten the day. (College students love to sleep.) After that, the schedule was essentially the same relative to tip-off. Our team shootaround was six hours before game time (6 p.m.), and we ate our pregame meal four hours before (8 p.m.). Once the game started, there was no perceptible difference.
I loved coaching in early games because I truly believed that waking up correctly was a mindset. Noon games have become increasingly common during the season because of television schedules. So I convinced my team that if we woke up well we would have an advantage.
Last year, West Virginia played Marquette on New Year's Day at 10 a.m. Central time. I was part of the ESPN broadcast team for the game. Knowing that Golden Eagles coach Buzz Williams is a creature of habit, I instructed our production crew to have the cameramen ready to film the Marquette players arriving for the shootaround five hours before the game started. Sure enough, the players came trudging into the Bradley Center in sub-zero weather at 5 a.m.
Williams went through his normal game day preparation with his team as if it were the middle of the afternoon, and his team played well in defeating the Mountaineers. I believe the Golden Eagles' mindset was the reason why.
Come the NCAA tournament, game time is always tricky, because while you generally know what time your game is, you can't control the triple-overtime game that is going on right before you play. In those situations, I tried to keep my teams loose with a joke or a story while we were killing time. More preparation, I felt, only created more tension in the locker room and was counterproductive.
The reality of a season with 30 or more games, most of which are televised, is that coaches and players must constantly stay flexible. Keeping the players rested and fresh-legged is a key part of a coach's job as the year unfolds. More importantly, keeping them mentally focused is critical regardless of what time they tip off.
As I used to tell my team, "Tell us what time the game is and we'll be there." As someone who was an insomniac during the season, that was easy for me. Getting my team to buy into that thought process was my bigger challenge. Like I said, those college students love to sleep.