PORTLAND, Ore. — It’s too bad for Tracy Abrams, Jon Ekey, Nnanna Egwu and the rest of the Illini that they can’t accumulate their own frequent-flier miles during the rigorous travel of the college basketball season.
Since Nov. 25, when the Illinois basketball team flew to Las Vegas for a game at UNLV, the Illini have made two trips to Atlanta and Friday morning they flew to the Pacific Northwest for Saturday night’s game against No. 15 Oregon (8 p.m., ESPN2) at Moda Center, home of the Portland Trail Blazers.
Throw in round-trip bus rides to St. Louis for the Dec. 21 Braggin’ Rights game against Missouri and Chicago for the Dec. 28 game against UIC at the United Center, and the Illini will have traveled more than 10,000 miles before the Big Ten opener against Indiana on New Year’s Eve.
“It’s definitely fun. It just makes the whole college experience better,” Abrams said. “We get a chance to see different places, but it’s fun to just go on the road and play.”
More often than not, things go as planned on the road. Flights are on time, buses are prompt and hotel accommodations and meals are on point.
That’s the responsibility of director of basketball operations Mark Morris.
“Luckily we’ve got pretty good resources here where the travel is usually pretty accommodating,” Morris said.
It doesn’t always go as planned, though. After the loss to Georgia Tech, the Illini’s plane to Savoy was delayed leaving Atlanta for a couple of hours because of weather there, and then weather back home forced the team to land in St. Louis and spend the night. Morris made all those arrangements, including securing hotel rooms in a pinch and getting a bus to transport the team to campus the following day.
“Luckily Coach (John) Groce and the staff and the players know it’s not all my fault when things go wrong. They don’t get on me too bad,” Morris said. “I’ll get some gut punches every once in a while from the guys, but it’s all in fun.”
The second trip to Atlanta saw another delay following the game. The plane again was grounded for a couple of hours before it was cleared to return to central Illinois.
Because the Illini won the game that day, the delay was more enjoyable.
“The (Atlanta) Falcons landed after their game the last time we were in Atlanta, and we sat there and watched them getting into all the nice cars they were driving,” Ekey said. “Hanging out together is always fun. We make the best out of any situation.”
The uncertainty of getting home and the extra hours on the road can take a toll on college athletes who are punishing their bodies in competition in addition to preparing for final exams at the end of the semester. But the Illinois players have taken it all in stride and demonstrated a mature approach to the hiccups.
“I think they’ve responded well. That starts a lot with our staff’s disposition and our leadership’s disposition, in particular with our older players that have kind of been through stuff like that,” Groce said. “I think overall our approach with the travel is ‘Hey, we’ve got to be unconditional regardless of how the travel goes or who we’re playing or where, what time.’ We had that disposition last year, and that’s helped certainly carry over to this season.”
For the players to stay sharp and fresh, especially when crossing multiple time zones like they did for the UNLV game and Saturday night’s game against the Ducks, strength and conditioning coach Mike Basgier monitors the players.
He makes sure they’re staying hydrated, getting enough sleep and attending team meals.
“It’s all about communication with our guys,” Basgier said. “They’ve done a good job of handling everything, and the thing we try to do is stay in a routine for every trip.”
With final exams approaching, Basgier keeps a close eye on the stress load of each player to determine whether he needs to switch something up to make sure the players are not overexerting themselves mentally or physically.
The Illinois players all wear heart monitors for every practice and workout, and Basgier uses the readings to determine how to handle each player’s daily workload.
“We can gauge systemically if this guy’s training load is 30 to 40 percent higher than it normally is, he’s probably broken down from everything,” Basgier said. “It’s easy for us as coaches to forget that they’ve got that going on, but we want them to be winners in everything they do, so that is important we take that into consideration. If a guy has three finals in one day, we look at that; we do. The systemic fatigue of three finals and five games in nine days, or whatever it may be, we’ve got to keep tabs on all that stuff.”
Aside from the Atlanta delays, it’s been an enjoyable process this season for the Illini. The travel can wear on the players some, but for the most part the experience has been looked at as one of the benefits of playing at a program such as Illinois.
“I think it’s a lot of fun. That’s one of the things about college basketball is getting to travel and going places you’ve never been before and doing it with guys you like,” Ekey said. “It’s a little bit of a grind, but the coaches do a good job of giving us time to recover, so it’s not too bad.”