Mount St. Mary’s basketball coach Jamion Christian was well on his way to constructing a typical schedule for his program. There would be a few high-profile guarantee games against big-name schools, but that’s the norm for Division I teams outside the major conferences.
“I felt we would do them a disservice if we didn’t challenge them the best we could because I think this team can win a game in the NCAA tournament and I wanted to try to find a way to get this team confidence before we got there,” Christian said.
He settled on an unorthodox strategy.
The Mount departed Nov. 10 for an eight-game barnstorming tour. It skipped from West Virginia to Iowa State to Minnesota to George Mason to Southern Illinois to Texas-Arlington to Michigan to Arkansas. It spent time in airports in Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, St. Louis and others. Thanksgiving came and went on the road. It returned to campus Tuesday after 19 days on the road. According to Mount St. Mary’s director of basketball operations Justine Miller, the team logged 8,236 miles — or roughly a third of the planet’s circumference — during its trip.
“You can’t really dwell on the game,” forward Chris Wray said after the Mountaineers’ Nov. 18 game at George Mason. “The next game is so quick. You go from one flight; you pull up; you have practice that same day. You have to move on, but you have to remember what you did right and what did you wrong, and you have to fix it.”
That’s an extreme and condensed version of what unfolds early in every college basketball season. For different reasons, several programs are vagabonds as they traverse nonconference play.
One obvious reason is money, both to pay department bills and coaching contracts. For instance, Long Beach State Coach Dan Monson receives a large cut of his team’s guarantee games, according to a 2015 Los Angeles Times article; unsurprisingly, the 49ers typically play one of the nation’s most ambitious schedules.
Sometimes, it’s just the hand a coach is dealt.
Ray Harper took over at Jacksonville State in April, the latest stop in a career that included two Division II titles at Kentucky Wesleyan, two NAIA championships at Oklahoma City and a pair of Sun Belt tournament titles at Western Kentucky. His hire boded well for a program that has struggled to establish itself in the Ohio Valley.
Yet in addition to remaking the roster, there was another glaring issue without a quick fix.
“There was so much work to be done with recruiting and a lot of things, and when I started to look at the schedule and work on it, a lot of it was already done,” Harper said. “There was nothing we could do about it. We started to try and get some games, and no one would start a series at our place.”
So the Gamecocks hit the road — a lot. They will play 16 games by New Year’s Day. All but one — a Nov. 22 victory over NAIA program Dalton State — is away from home. Jacksonville State has gone to Tulsa (where it won its opener) and Texas Christian, and it will pair a Dec. 12 visit to Maryland (Terrapins coach Mark Turgeon spent a year in charge at Jacksonville State) with a game two days later against Howard.
A payoff comes next season, when many of this season’s opponents on the back end visit the Gamecocks. But after a 5-3 start, including two wins in Las Vegas during the holiday weekend, it might help this season, too.
“The way I looked at is, it’ll be good for us come January and February,” Harper said. “We’ve already been on the road. We’ve been in tough environments. We wanted this team to try to grow from infancy, anyway. Our kids have responded really well.”
While Harper doesn’t want a repeat of this year’s schedule, other coaches seek it out. Texas Southern plays its first 16 games on the road, and won’t have a home date until Jan. 14. That’s not atypical; the Tigers opened with 12 road games in a row last season.
It hasn’t proved prohibitive for long-term success under Coach Mike Davis. Texas Southern advanced to the NCAA tournament in 2014 and 2015 and the NIT last March. It also pulled off upsets of Michigan State and Kansas State two seasons ago.
“No one thinks you’ll beat Arizona; no one thinks you’ll win at Michigan State, LSU or those schools,” Davis said. “You have to learn to prepare, and you have to prepare through struggles to be successful. That’s my plan, to put them in life situations. At the same time, they have a chance to have a great life experience, eating the same [quality of] meals that Kansas or Duke would eat, stay at the same hotels. We’re not the normal low-major school. I put the money right back into the program.”
Ultimately, any deep dive into basketball road warriors will turn to money. Davis isn’t shy about discussing the dynamic, but also argues the Tigers’ locker room, offices and facilities demonstrates that players receive a long-term benefit from the challenging schedule.
He also uses the one-bid league dynamic as a positive, acknowledging that nothing outside of conference play will impact his team’s postseason hopes.
“I know if I have a home game and I’m going to get 300 or 400 people to come to my nonconference game at home, it’s going to cost me when it’s all over,” Davis said. “I’ve got to pay officials, pay security, pay all this stuff. It’s going to cost me $3,000 or more to have a home game when I can go get 75, 80, 90 [thousand] on the road. It doesn’t make sense to lose money. No one cares about your nonconference. … I’d rather make money and put it back into my players. I’m not good at math, but I’d rather make 90 than lose 3.”
The Tigers have done more than just make money this season, rattling off victories at Delaware State, Rice, La Salle and James Madison to open at 4-2. The tough part is still to come.
In a 12-day span in December, Texas Southern will visit Louisville, Cincinnati, Louisiana State, Texas Christian and Baylor. The LSU and TCU games are on back-to-back days, though that is a relatively mild demand compared to other programs; Coppin State played Coastal Carolina and Brigham Young on back-to-back nights in the first full week of the season, then played Utah the night after that.
This, of course, prompts the question of how academic concerns coexist with athletic travel demands. Davis said his players will miss just five days of class during nonconference play, with the most arduous travel coming after the semester ends. He said his time at Texas Southern, 12 of 14 scholarship seniors have graduated.
“There’s a method to it,” said Davis, the former coach at Indiana and UAB. “If we’re missing classes, we’re going to bring an academic person that travels with us all the time.”
The academic component was also important for the Mount St. Mary’s trek. The team had three hours set aside every morning for academics, and different professors and academic officials joined the program during its trip.
Players consulted with professors beforehand to work through the logistics of being away from campus so long, and the university’s push for greater online learning dovetailed with the odyssey.
“Watching our president, watching our provost, watching our faculty support us, and they easily could have turned an eye and been negative about it, but they’ve really done an unbelievable job,” Christian said. “I don’t think you can do this at every place. I think the Mount is a special place to be able to encompass everybody on campus to do this.”
Christian already had scheduled trips to West Virginia, Iowa State, George Mason and Michigan before suggesting the possibility of a more extended absence from campus. That’s how games against Minnesota, Southern Illinois, Texas-Arlington and Arkansas got roped in.
“I asked them: ‘What do you think about this? Would you want to do this?’” Christian said. “Finally, I have a group of guys who are like ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ I love that. I love that they’re not afraid to step into a situation where they might fail to take the chance of being successful.”
It was up to Miller to coordinate a venture that took the Mountaineers through 12 states and included stops at 11 hotels. The team used five bus companies and passed through nine airports.
The Mountaineers lost the first three before heading back east to face George Mason (the logistics actually worked out better for them to stay at a hotel rather than make the 90-minute trip back to campus). It turned out to be the highlight of the trip: Wray’s go-ahead dunk with 1.7 seconds left in overtime gave the Mount its only victory to date.
Christian emphasized process over results throughout nonconference play. But the Mountaineers (1-7) lost just two games by more than 18 points, and they insist there’s much to be gained from such an extreme challenge.
“We never broke from those losses,” sophomore guard Elijah Long said. “Yeah, they beat us by 20, 25, but we move forward. That’s the thing about our team. We’re going to move forward.”
And, at long last, return home, too.