On Sunday, members of the Oregon basketball team will be watching the Selection Show to find out more than just their team’s seed. Oregon organizes its academic calendar on the quarter system, which means that the Ducks will be facing finals the same week the NCAA tournament opens.
To players on the quarter system, seeding determines not just when and where they’ll play but also if they can take their finals from the comfort of their own classrooms or on the road. And one day can make all the difference.
Sophomore point guard Casey Benson remembers facing this situation last year. In 2015, the Ducks were fortunate to be slotted for their first game on Friday (rather than Thursday, the first day of the tournament), giving Benson and many of his teammates the ability to finish their tests before leaving campus on Wednesday. But until they find out exactly when and where they will be playing, these players must be ready to take their exams wherever their schedule allows.
“It’s just a matter of being on top of it early in the term so you don’t get to that point where you’re stressing yourself out,” Benson said. “We’ve obviously had to adjust to the way our system is, and you just kind of get the hang of it. You don’t let those things pile up to where you are stressing yourself out towards when it becomes tournament time and the end of the term.”
The SI Extra Newsletter Get the best of Sports Illustrated delivered right to your inbox
In order to stay ahead of the game, players work with a team of tutors, academic advisors and learning specialists to help them plan their schedules and then learn their coursework. Chris Young is an academic advisor for both the football and basketball teams, meeting with players on a weekly basis to develop a gameplan on how to approach their studies. He describes his role as similar to a guidance counselor, but more hands-on. He travels with the team to help administer exams at away games.
“[In 2014], we had guys who I held until 10:30, 11 o’clock at night, then they had to get up the next morning,” Young said. “But they had to do their finals, there’s no other way around it.”
Professors also determine the amount of flexibility the players have in their schedule. Some allow tests to be taken at different days or times than they are held, but some require the test to be taken at the exact moment it is administered in Oregon.
“We have a student-athlete right now who is in a math class, but every Thursday there’s a quiz,” Young said. “They’re traveling every Thursday, so he has to take a quiz during a certain time. When they were at Utah, I had to coordinate with a Utah staffer to take him straight from practice directly to the University of Utah academic facility to have him take the quiz.”
Players work with a variety of people throughout the season to make sure their academic obligations are met. Oregon’s Jaqua Academic Center, led by executive director Steve Stolp, employs academic advisors (like Young) who work on bigger-picture guidance counseling; learning specialists, who coordinate academic support; and tutors, who assist the players with their coursework.
“For some of them that are particularly in majors where they’re doing business or accounting or math or whatever, there’s certainly pressure in there in kind of trying to find moments to study for those exams,” Stolp said.
To an experienced eye, that pressure is easy to see materialize in the Oregon basketball players. Head coach Dana Altman is very in-tune with his players’ stress levels. Before coaching Oregon, a position he has held since 2010, he was the head coach of Creighton—a semester school—for 16 years, taking the Bluejays to the Big Dance seven times. He notices an added burden on his Oregon players that his Creighton players didn’t experience.
“The guys are excited about the tournament, but obviously it carries a lot of stress with it,” he said. “Then you add guys trying to finish up finals, our student-athletes are no different than a lot—some of them need those finals to do well in the class or to make sure they maintain their grade point average, so it’s a lot of pressure at that time.”
Often at Creighton, the beginning of the tournament would fall during spring break, when there is almost no academic responsibility to worry about. His players in Eugene don’t have that luxury.
“In this case, we have proctored exams, our guys are preparing for those exams,” Altman said. “We are changing our schedule quite a bit to make sure everything fits in.”
Oregon has seemingly dealt well with the balancing act—the Ducks have won at least one game in the tournament each of the last three years.
Benson’s major is undecided, but he said he’s leaning towards journalism. He had a sociology paper and a history project due March 9 and has a comparative literature paper due the 16th, but he’s been preparing for this stretch all quarter. With the help of his coaches, academic advisors, learning specialists and tutors, he’ll be ready to finish all his finals and lead his team into tournament play.
“That’s why they call it March Madness,” learning specialist Blake Postma said. “Mentality shifts. We emphasize to them when they come in here that they’re performing as champions of not only athletes but also as students. They have to perform and produce championship-level work.”