BACK TO THE BASKET: THE WEEKLY FORECAST
Originally Published: Feb 18, 2013

The perils and pitfalls of league road games

By Myron Medcalf | ESPN.com

On the road, food comes first. Literally.

The pregame meal on the road is a key element in the meticulously planned routine that's created by coaches who must help young men stay focused many miles from campus.

So when Dayton's food was 30 minutes late, the team panicked. Nearly a decade later, Shaka Smart -- then the squad's director of basketball operations -- vividly recalls the frenzy and the hunger that preoccupied the program hours before a key game at Old Dominion.

By the time the chicken dish arrived, players didn't waste time.

Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesShaka Smart knows quite well how hectic road trips can be.

"We're tearing into this food, these chicken breasts," Smart said. "About five minutes into eating, somebody says, 'This chicken isn't cooked!' By then, everybody has a half-eaten chicken breast. We were so hungry we hadn't noticed. It wasn't even close to being cooked all the way through. We were worried about food poisoning. We ended up winning the game. But some jobs might have been on the line if we'd lost."

It seems like a simple matter.

But food is pivotal in the delicate process of preparing for road games at this level. The obvious factor in every away game is the hostility that greets opponents once they enter someone else's gym. But it's bigger than that.

It's the food and the practices on foreign rims and the hotels and the occasionally wacky travel arrangements and the schoolwork and more.

Most coaches discuss execution and execution alone, whether they're home or on the road. They rarely cite environment or off-court circumstances for losses. The road, however, presents a variety of challenges that every program in the country must decipher.

"This has been an exhausting schedule for our team," Duke's Mike Krzyzewski said after the Blue Devils suffered an 83-81 loss at Maryland on Saturday.

Duke is not the only team that's struggled in conference road games this season -- just the latest. Miami (7-0 in ACC road games) and Gonzaga (7-0 in WCC road games) are anomalies even among the ranked.

Without those two schools, the reigning top 10 in The Associated Press poll would have entered Monday with a combined 33-18 record in conference road games.

Check the standings. The winners of the Big East, Big Ten, Mountain West, Atlantic 10 and other leagues throughout the country will need critical road wins in the coming weeks to secure their respective titles. It's that tight right now.

And it's that tough.

In the Big East, three teams -- Georgetown, Marquette and Syracuse -- begin Monday with 9-3 conference records. Louisville is a half-game behind. Notre Dame and Pitt, who will meet Monday in Pittsburgh, are 8-5.

The coaches in this league recognize both the challenges and the pressure tied to upcoming road games. That doesn't mean they've discovered any foolproof formulas.

"You know you're going to be in tight games [on the road]," Pitt's Jamie Dixon said during last week's Big East media teleconference.

On the same call, Georgetown's John Thompson III added: "There's something to the phrase 'home-court advantage.' The opposition's fans are part of the equation. The fact that they're sleeping in their own bed the night before and you're at a hotel could be part of the equation. You're just more comfortable at home."

Wisconsin led Minnesota by 10 points in the first half of a 58-53 overtime loss in Minneapolis on Thursday. The Badgers had maintained an edge in the first five minutes of the second half. And then ...

"They got the crowd into it," Wisconsin's Jared Berggren said about Minnesota's surge. "They started feeding off that."

That's typical.

Home crowds -- from the Barn to the Phog to a variety of arenas known by single names -- infuse their programs with an energy that can have an impact on the game. In a season like this, however, successfully fighting through that atmosphere is not typical. But it's necessary.

Greg Bartram/US PresswireBo Ryan knows road wins don't come easily in the Big Ten.

"Every team has to face it," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. "Those that can persevere usually have a chance of playing on at the end of the year."

It's easier to overcome those conference road challenges on seven or eight hours of sleep. And that's no guarantee on a stiff hotel bed, especially if someone is screaming in the hallways in the middle of the night.

That happened to former Kansas forward Jeff Graves and his teammates on a road trip to play rival Missouri. Tigers fans tried everything to disrupt the Jayhawks prior to tipoff. They called their cellphones. One night, they even stormed the team's hotel and sprinted past players' rooms, yelling and screaming.

"As players, we're trying to figure out how they got our cellphone numbers," Graves said.

Shariff Chambliss always worried about the rims on the road. He never trusted them. Chambliss, now an assistant at UW-Milwaukee, played at both Penn State and Wisconsin in the 2000s.

He said his top priority for road trips was completing any outstanding homework or class assignments. On the floor, however, he always tried to ensure that he'd have adequate time to warm up in a foreign gym before game time.

"At Minnesota, I always thought it was tough when they had the posts that came out of the ground on the raised floor," he said. "I always felt like those floors were a little bit different. That floor was a little more bouncy with the springs under it. It definitely felt like those rims were a little bit tighter than usual."

And every Big Ten opponent that's...

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