What it takes to get the Xavier men's basketball team to a road game and back

What it takes to get the Xavier men's basketball team to a road game and back
Posted at 9:24 AM, Dec 19, 2016
and last updated 2017-03-25 15:40:44-04

The Xavier Musketeers men's basketball team gave reporter Shannon Russell exclusive access to follow the team on the road. Her reporting gives fascinating insights into what it is like for a Division I college basketball team to travel to an away game.

The length of a road game may span two hours for a Xavier men’s basketball fan who flips on the TV at tip-off and moves on after the final buzzer, but the logistics of road trips are much more involved for the team and its staff. 

There are bags to pack, buses and a plane to catch, shoot-arounds to complete, meals, studies and sleep, and that’s well before a game actually transpires.

Xavier basketball managers are the unsung heroes of road trips, as they handle everything from luggage loading to equipment prep.

Xavier Athletics has long extended reporters an invitation to travel with the team for a behind-the-scenes look at a road trip. It never came to fruition for me, mainly because filing a requisite game story required an internet connection, and chartered flights could not guarantee Wi-Fi.

Now, as a digital reporter with a more flexible deadline, I seized the chance to accompany the team to its Dec. 7 game at the University of Colorado. It was a much different experience than my first nine years on the beat, in which I booked my own flights and arranged my own transportation and generally flew solo.

As a member of Xavier’s group, I gained a variety of new perspectives including two important pieces of information: 

  • 1. Team managers work harder than I’d ever imagined, handling baggage and equipment and all the details that make the team tick.
  • 2. You really can’t count on Wi-Fi on the plane home. I emailed my game analysis at 7 a.m. the morning after the game.

Here’s a look at what it’s like to follow the Musketeers to Colorado and back. 

Last practice at home

It’s rainy and dreary outside, but Cintas Center’s court is awash with light inside as shoes squeak and players out-hustle each another for rebounds. 

On this day, Dec. 6, the Musketeers devote about 90 minutes to practice prep for Colorado – namely crashing the boards. The Buffaloes are among the top offensive-rebounding opponents Xavier has faced. Coach Chris Mack is all business as the team runs a four-on-four drill where teams go from offense to defense to offense again in a sort of abbreviated scrimmage. 

In one corner of the gym, Mack’s wife, Christi, and their nearly 2-year-old son, Brayden, watch. 

Coach Chris Mack’s son, Brayden, and wife, Christi, take in Xavier’s basketball practice before bidding the team farewell for its Colorado trip.

Well, Christi Mack watches practice and Brayden while the towheaded toddler runs, smiles and chatters. He recites his ABCs, climbs up and down stairs, tentatively heads out to hug his dad during a break in the action, and then quickly retreats.

After practice ends, Chris Mack scoops up his son with a smile. He gives Brayden and Christi each a kiss, and then it’s time to head out.

In the meantime, players switch from practice wear to travel gear. Hot Potbelly sandwiches, chips and cookies awaits them in the media room. There’s not much time to linger so Edmond Sumner, among others, brings his lunch on the bus. 

Not just basketball players

The bus is packed with players, coaches, managers, radio broadcasters and Xavier staff members. It’s the perfect time to talk to Chris Barbour about the academic expectations of a road trip.

Meet Chris Barbour (left), Xavier’s assistant director of student-athlete academic support services. He ensures players are on top of their academics. Next to him is Brett Sanders, XU's assistant athletic director for ticket sales.

Barbour is in his sixth year as Xavier’s assistant director of student-athlete academic support services. Simply put, Barbour is an adviser tasked with ensuring men’s basketball players -- as well as those in volleyball, men’s soccer and men’s golf -- are on track academically.

“We have study tables on the road when they go to their rooms, and we have one-on-ones, whatever they need to do, whether that be a paper or just helping them make out their study schedules,” Barbour says.

There’s always time to study, Barbour says. He squeezes in help in 15-, 20- or 30-minute increments, allowing time for players’ naps, meals and game prep. 

Academics are the biggest commitment for student-athletes at Xavier. No way is Barbour going to let those duties slide, especially on the road.

“Overall, everybody knows that’s the program. That’s what the coaches sell to their parents and to them on recruiting visits, that we will be doing homework on the road,” Barbour says. “They understand the responsibility.”

He loves road trips because they are vehicles for learning more about players informally. He’s alongside student-athletes on journeys to Florida and Texas and Colorado, so he knows when a chartered flight doesn’t return home until 5 a.m. 

That’s rough timing, by the way, for players with early morning classes. 

“However, we’ve strategically scheduled (classes) so players don’t have to get up so early,” Barbour says. “I think the earliest class is 9 o’clock.”

Say what?

Players are curious about my presence on the trip. After seeing me film the team leaving the bus and entering a private terminal at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, Sumner asks if I’m going to post pictures and video on Twitter.

The answer, of course, is “yes.”

“Make sure to call this guy Lil Ugly,” Sumner says, nodding to guard Malcolm Bernard. 

“What? Lil Ugly?” I ask, and Sumner, Bernard and three other players burst into laughter. It is perhaps the funniest thing they have heard all day. 

I imagine they are teasing each other or me and do not Tweet such a reference. I flash my ID to the flight attendant, board the plane and eat the delicious piece of string cheese stowed in my purse. 

Crucial update

I find out from Bernard that Lil Ugly is a character on an online show. Bernard imitates the character with aplomb, and so his teammates call him that. If Sumner doesn’t cut out the nickname talk soon, though, Bernard vows to start calling him Skinny Minnie. 

The chartered flight

The lights are dim and the only noise is the loud thrumming of the Swift Air Boeing 737-400 engine as the plane coasts across the sky at 3:30 p.m. Eastern Time. There is a division on the plane – players in back, coaches up front – and much of the former are sprawled out, eyes closed, lulled to sleep by the sound of the music on their headphones.

Tim Stainbrook is among the few doing homework. He has a computer on his lap and a finance book on the empty seat beside him.

While most players sleep on the plane, senior Tim Stainbrook gets a jump on his studies.

“Right now I’m doing a project in Google Docs, and we’re lucky enough to have Wi-Fi so I’m actually able to do some of it. It’s for International Econ,” Stainbrook says. “I’m going to have to have my section done today for my group mates. I actually also have a case study for Finance that’s due tomorrow, so I’ve got to finish that up, too.”

Stainbrook is taking 15 credit hours. He’ll finish his finance degree by the semester’s end, at which time he’ll focus on a minor in Information Technology. Juggling schoolwork with travel and basketball is no easy task, but for Stainbrook – a senior with a 3.1 GPA – it’s routine.

Radio analyst and Xavier Hall-of-Famer Byron Larkin starts preparing for the Dec.7 radio broadcast by reading Xavier’s game notes during the flight to Colorado.

“It was definitely difficult at the start, especially if you get home late one day and it kind of puts you behind. You’re tired and then just like everyone else, sometimes you forget about things,” Stainbrook says. “So you’ve got to really stay on top of it and make sure everything is planned or else you’re really not going to be able to do it.”

Most of Xavier’s flights arise in the Big East portion of the schedule and the airtime usually lasts around an hour, he says. On those days, he and his teammates do homework in their hotel rooms. 

Stainbrook doesn’t mind the pressures of road trips because he loves traveling, period. Last summer he and his older brothers, Andy and former Musketeers player Matt, traveled to Rome and Spain for fun. Tim plans to visit Matt in Spain (where he’s playing basketball professionally) this spring. 

On this trip, though, Tim is excited to see Andy. He lives in Denver, has an engineering degree and works for a construction company.

Back at the front of the plane, coaches study their phones and iPads. Radio analyst Byron Larkin pores over stats and game notes in preparation for the broadcast on 700-WLW. Associate athletic director for communications Tom Eiser reads a book and associate head athletic trainer David Fluker, like many others, rests his eyes.

Welcome to the Wild West

After landing in Denver, which is 42 miles from Boulder, players and coaches sling their backpacks over their shoulders, descend a set of mobile metal stairs and walk two dozen steps to a chartered bus. 

Xavier Hall-of-Famer Joe Sunderman, the other part of the Musketeers’ radio team, leads a group of disembarking passengers in Colorado. The sun sets within minutes as Xavier buses to its hotel.

As sunlight disappears, black night cloaks the sky. It’s only 5 p.m. Mountain Time. Snowflakes multiply as the drive progresses. 

There’s no guesswork about the schedule, thanks to the itineraries distributed by Xavier basketball director of administration Mario Mercurio. An hour-by-hour breakdown plots out activity from 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 6 at to 5:30 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 8.

A message has probably been communicated sternly to players long before this trip, but the sentiment is clear: Don’t be late. 

This step-by-step schedule is the ultimate handbook to Xavier’s road trip. There’s really no excuse to be late.

The evening traffic is not nearly as cooperative, so by the time the bus reaches the Boulder Marriott, there’s only enough time to toss luggage into rooms and hop back on board for the one-mile trip to the evening shoot-around at the University of Colorado’s Coors Events Center.

It’s a highly yellow arena and fairly intimate, seating 11,064. As hip hop artist Ace Hood’s “Bugatti” blares on a portable sound system, the Musketeers start shooting drills. Bigs are on one end of the court, guards on another.

In the hour-long session, Mack incorporates scouting information on Colorado. The Buffaloes run a motion offense predicated on spreading out their players. Calling out back-screens will be as imperative as general court awareness.

“It’s constant head-on-a-swivel,” Mack says. “Where’s the ball? Which side of the court is the ball on?” 

After walking through plays with each of the levels of teams (Team One is the starters, and for the first time RaShid Gaston is in that group), practice ends with a bit of fun. Players line up at half-court and try to make shots, a tradition in Xavier shoot-arounds since 2001.

RaShid Gaston, dunking here, participates with the first team for all the run-throughs. He garners his first start in a Xavier uniform Dec. 7.

It’s very comical. There are a few air balls, but the better shooters have no trouble hitting the backboard and rim. Eventually a one-by-one process becomes a free-for-all, and someone does hit a half-court shot but it’s hard to discern who did it because of the basketballs raining down.

The last player on the court is junior Trevon Bluiett.

Sumner provides a running commentary about Bluiett’s missed attempts. “Come on, big guy! Try it again!” he calls. Bluiett laughs and continues his mission.

A word about Sumner and Bluiett

What better way to show your good friend you care than by constantly aggravating him? So goes the dynamic between Sumner and Bluiett, an eternally evolving combination of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. 

“We’ve been good friends since freshman year or so. Now, we’re more around each other so our friendship has kind of grown. We just always joke around with each other,” Sumner says.

Asked if he seizes every possible chance to tease Bluiett, Sumner nods. 

“Yes. I do,” he says. “He gets salty when we do a shooting contest and he loses.”

Sumner claims he’s the victor in most head-to-head shooting contests. Bluiett disagrees.

“I mean, we’ve all got hopes and dreams. Ed’s got a lot of confidence. I’m not surprised by that answer, but I think he was just talking on a cloud. He wasn’t really in reality. I’m going to give him that answer for now,” Bluiett says, smiling.For the record, Bluiett says Sumner’s attempts to get under his skin are fruitless. 

“He may think they work,” Bluiett says. “But they don’t.”

The weather outside is frightful

Let’s back up for a moment to the arrival at the Coors Event Center. Snow is steadily falling, and it’s probably just like home for Minnesota native J.P. Macura. As the bus pulls into the parking lot, he has an idea.

“Snowball fight!” Macura says.

That doesn’t happen before the team enters the arena but afterward Gaston hides behind the corner of the bus and packs together a snowball. He aims at Bluiett. He fires. He misses.

It was a snowy evening in Boulder.

Macura is on the bus already but has seen the hijinks and wants to join in the fun. Unfortunately, a stream of teammates and coaches are climbing onto the bus as he tries to get out, and he doesn’t make it in time for what surely would have been an epic throw down.

It’s time to head back to the Marriott for dinner, studies and sleep.

Rise and eat

From 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. on Dec. 7, the day of the Xavier-Colorado game, players fuel up at breakfast. The spread at the Boulder Marriott features everything from bagels to bacon.

The Montrachet A conference room on the first floor of the Marriott is reserved for Xavier’s basketball team for breakfast from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. Players look at their phones and talk quietly over omelets, scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, oatmeal, fruit, yogurt, cereal, bagels, juice, water and sports drinks.

There isn’t much time to linger because the second shoot-around at the Coors Events Center starts 30 minutes after the meal’s end. It’s much like the first shoot-around, except with a more serious and focused tone. No half-court frivolity. 

And this time, the legendary Bill Walton is there to watch it all.

Walton, a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer, two-time NBA champion and 1977-78 NBA MVP, is the game analyst for the Pac-12 Network. Some players are curious about Walton, others are giddy, and Walton is approachable, conversational and amenable to posing for pictures.

He starts the session by chatting with Mack about the team, and then talks to Eiser for 30 minutes.

That makes an even two hours of study time Walton has put in with Eiser. As is customary with many TV analysts, Walton spoke on the phone with Eiser for 90 minutes before Xavier’s trip. It was Eiser who mentioned Cincinnati details (like the Roebling Bridge) that made the telecast.

I ask Walton if he can spare a moment to talk about Xavier. He’d love to, he says, but he hasn’t seen the Musketeers in action would rather watch them play first.

“How about after the game?” Walton asks.

I agree but know in my sad heart that it won’t happen based on the massive amount of activity that follows the final buzzer. There are stats to Tweet, interviews to do, a game story to write and a bus to catch. That is precisely what unfolds, leaving this portion of the story woefully brief.

The game

There’s an intense silence on the bus as Xavier makes its way to the arena one last time. Suitcases are stowed in the bottom level of the slow-moving behemoth, ready for the return trip home, and coaches’ suits hang in garment bags that spill into the aisle.  

This is a big game. The 13th-ranked Musketeers are coming off a loss at Baylor and have an opportunity to add a quality non-conference road victory to their resume. 

There’s no shame in wearing a tie-dye shirt for a televised broadcast, especially if your name is Bill Walton. Here, he waves to adoring fans at the Coors Events Center in Boulder before the Xavier-Colorado game Dec. 7.

As Walton walks to the broadcast table in a tie-dye shirt (which he continues to wear for the broadcast), waving to fans in the crowd of 7,743, there’s a growing buzz in the arena. Reporters that regularly cover the Buffaloes say they are inconsistent and play to the level of their competition, and a tight halftime score – Xavier 31, Colorado 28 – reflects that.

The game spins out of control for Xavier in the second half as the Buffs mount a 15-0 run. The Musketeers’ nine-point lead vanishes with a six-minute scoring drought. Missed free throws and ill-advised shots are compounded by Colorado’s 3-point barrage.

Colorado wins, 68-66, despite Bluiett’s career-high 27 points and Gaston’ double-double of 14 points and 11 rebounds.

Colorado’s sports information staff does not bring visiting coaches to its media room so several reporters cram into the narrow hallway by the Musketeers’ locker room. Gaston emerges first, and then Mack. Both are disappointed.

“Our team right now has to figure out a way to quit taking their foot off the gas pedal,” Mack says. “Winning at this level requires a 40-minute effort, especially when you’re on the road. And we’re not able to do that right now.”

About 10 minutes later, Musketeers players quietly head outside for the ride to the airport. They’re frustrated, tired and hungry. Stacks of pizzas are passed around as the bus lumbers out of the parking lot and into the inky night.

Heading home

After the 45-minute drive to the airport, Xavier’s charter flight home is slated to leave at 11 p.m. Mountain Time. But as the bus idles for an extended time near the entrance to the terminal, Mercurio makes an announcement.

There’s a crack in the windshield of the original plane, he says, so there will be a slight delay while another aircraft is summoned. Twenty minutes later, it’s ready.  

By then it’s negative-4 degrees outside. Luckily, it’s a short distance to the plane and there’s plenty of space inside, so most everyone spreads out and hunkers down for as much sleep as possible.

After the plane lands at CVG, another bus shuttles the group back to Cintas Center. By 4:45 a.m. Eastern Time, the managers have extracted luggage from the bus, staff members have piled into their cars and players have left in search of their beds.

 “Goodnight,” radio play-by-play announcer and Xavier Hall-of-Famer Joe Sunderman calls as he unlocks his car, and the road trip is officially over.