Jesse Zarzuela’s knees hurt.
He says there’s nothing structurally wrong with them and they’ve never hurt before this season. They just hurt.
Zarzuela doesn’t know exactly what ails his suddenly achy joints, but he does know why they hurt. He’s been playing a lot of basketball lately. In fact, he played more basketball than any other NCAA basketball player, men’s or women’s, at any level of the sport in the season’s first month. Zarzuela is the starting point guard and leading scorer for Coppin State in Baltimore, and he has just crossed the finish line of what might have been the most taxing opening month in recent college basketball memory.
Since the season began Nov. 9, Coppin State has played 15 games, including 13 in the season’s first 30 days. All but two of them have been on the road. No team has played more games, or more road games, than the Eagles. And Zarzuela, a D-I newbie who spent last season playing junior college basketball at Missouri State-West Plains, played 444 minutes in the season’s first month, which comes out to 34.1 per game.
Zarzuela is undeterred by the pain. He’s added ice for those knees to his postgame routine. He gets treatment pregame, usually in one of the many hotel meeting rooms that Coppin has called home over the last month. And when it’s time to get on the court, Zarzuela will be suited up, drilling step-back jumpers with J. Cole blasting in his ears from the headphones that somehow drown out the pregame playlists blaring in the many arenas he has played in this month.
Coppin State’s 2021–22 schedule looks like it could be one big typo. The Eagles opened the season with four games in five days, a cadence the NBA eliminated from its schedules after the 2016–17 season to give players reasonable rest. That stretch started with a pair of games in Chicago on a Tuesday and Wednesday, then concluded with another in New Jersey against Rider on a Friday night, followed by a matchup with UConn in Hartford the next day at noon. All in all, Coppin State played 10 games in 19 days—and 13 games in a month—to start the season. For comparison, the Eagles and the Washington Wizards (based an hour away) played the same number of games in that 19-day November stretch. The difference? Instead of charter flights and hotel stays at the Four Seasons, Coppin is busing or catching Southwest Airlines flights and eating team meals at Chick-fil-A or Panera.
“When you think about playing 10 games in 19 days, it’s hard because you always ask yourself, could I have done more [to prepare our team]?” assistant coach Charles Agumagu says. “The answer to that question nine times out of 10 is yeah, but you don’t have any time to prepare for your next game.”
This grueling schedule wasn’t put together because coach Juan Dixon (yes, that Juan Dixon, Maryland’s all-time leading scorer) wanted to toughen up his team. Like most things in college sports these days, the move started with money. The gap between NCAA haves and have-nots has never been wider, and Coppin State is squarely in the have-nots category. CSU is an HBCU with a 2020 budget of just $4.2 million—for its entire athletic department. Meanwhile: The Eagles’ seventh opponent this year, Virginia, paid coach Tony Bennett $4.15 million in ’19.
One of the main ways CSU funds that $4.2 million budget is playing so-called “guarantee” games (also known as “buy games”)—one-offs in which the home team writes a check to the road team, rather than later traveling the other direction as part of a home-and-home series. In men’s college basketball, the going rate for these games used to be somewhere between $80,000 and $100,000, depending on the opponent, but industry sources say that rate has dropped since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At a school like CSU, the revenue from these guarantee games helps to fund not just men’s basketball, but also the athletic department as a whole. The Eagles don’t sponsor football, which makes men’s basketball the breadwinner. So the mandate from above to Agumagu, who was in charge of putting together the schedule, is simple: Get as much as you can.
“A bad year for me is $700,000,” says Agumagu. “I constantly strive to stay in that $750,000 range.”
Looking for the best possible guarantee games for CSU is a 365-day-a-year job. The prerequisites? The opponent needs to pay well, the destination needs to be somewhere east of the Mississippi River (an athletic department policy) and, ideally, the game needs to be winnable.
The journey begins before 7 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 8, when players gather at the Eagles’ home, PEC Arena, to catch the team bus to Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Once they leave campus, members of the traveling party won’t spend three consecutive days at home again in November. Breakfast on the bus comes from Dunkin’, and once they get to the airport they’ll maneuver through TSA lines and crowded terminals with business travelers and vacationing families to wait for their Southwest flight to Chicago. Unlike high-major teams, which usually take charter flights, CSU has to worry about flight delays, cancellations and all the other ups and downs of commercial flying.
The first flight is a smooth one, for which director of basketball operations BreAnna Gross is thankful. This is her first year in the position, leading travel logistics, which is a bit like asking a 16-year-old to take the wheel for the first time during rush hour in Los Angeles. It’s a trial by fire.
Gross has a four-year-old daughter at home, which she says has prepared her well to supervise 14 college basketball players as they travel from place to place. Do you have your shoes, guys? Let me see them, she has been known to ask before a trip. Other than a few pairs of forgotten socks and a missing arm sleeve or two, that diligence paid off … that is, until the team’s Dec. 14 game at Drexel. The team, which traveled to Philadelphia earlier that day, realized before tip off that it had left its jerseys behind in Baltimore.
To be able to play the game, CSU suited up in navy Drexel practice uniforms to go with its normal gold shorts (which were not forgotten). Some players, like sophomore Nendah Tarke, got to wear the same number as normal, while others wore what was available … and what fit.
Thankfully, nothing was forgotten on the season-opening Chicago trip. So while the team practices in Chicago on Monday night, the day before its first game against Loyola Chicago, Gross sits courtside with her laptop and a notebook. She’s working ahead on itineraries for the rest of the week—after all, the team has road games in three more cities in the next seven days.
A few feet away, the Eagles’ final on-court preparations are underway for Tuesday’s opener, and spirits are high. Agumagu bounces around yelling, “1–0 in this gym!”, referring to CSU’s 76–72 win over the Ramblers in 2019. Fellow assistant coach John Auslander tries to prep the team for Loyola’s defense.
“I guarantee they are going to come out with [a full-court press],” he barks after a turnover in practice. “And we better not crap down our leg when they do.”
Twenty-four hours later, the season opener is over, essentially, as soon as it starts. Loyola and its fans are amped up after going to the Sweet 16 a year ago, and CSU isn’t ready for the first punch. The Eagles trail 14–0 less than four minutes in ... 30–3 after eight and a half minutes … and 48–9 at the 15-minute mark.
Through it all, Dixon is mostly stoic on the sideline. Agumagu, though, can’t help himself. He nearly falls backward out of his chair when the Ramblers get yet another wide open three because of a blown scouting report assignment.
The final tally: Loyola 103, Coppin State 45.
The good and bad part of CSU’s schedule: The Eagles play again in less than 24 hours. The next morning’s shootaround, at DePaul, feels more like a funeral. The arena is dead silent as Coppin’s players slowly lace up their shoes. The only person in the gym who seems excited to be here is Agumagu, who barks, “We’ve got a game tonight, fellas!” again and again.
Dixon takes the floor to put in the game plan on short notice for DePaul. He tweaks the offensive system he used against a quicker Loyola team and instructs his defense to “shrink the floor” to force DePaul to beat them with outside shots.
But X’s-and-O’s chatter quickly gives way to an argument between the coaching staff and big man Tyree Corbett, whose basketball journey has so far taken him from junior college (in Pennsylvania) to Alcorn State (in Mississippi) and now to Coppin State. In a heated team huddle about Corbett’s relationship with the coaches, Dixon kicks Corbett off the floor. Corbett puts a hoodie on, grabs his phone and headphones, and slumps into a courtside seat for the remainder of practice.
“We have this conversation every single day,” exasperated senior forward Sita Conteh says, walking off the floor. The season is 18 hours old, and things already feel like they could be headed off the rails.
Later, Corbett stays behind at the hotel during the DePaul game, which CSU is far more competitive in. The Eagles lead for several stretches of the first half; they would have entered the locker room with a lead if not for a buzzer-beating Blue Demons three. But the game gets away from them late, and both Dixon and Auslander are ejected for passionately pleading their case with officials. DePaul ultimately wins by 25, and CSU players pack their bags for New Jersey with a combined negative-83 point differential through two games.
As taxing and challenging as CSU’s schedule is, it’s also a necessary evil of sorts. The athletic department’s main income driver is a $415 student athletics fee that all undergraduates pay each semester. But with undergrad enrollment down by more than 26% since the fall of 2017, there’s even more pressure on the men’s basketball program to bring in revenue. So Agumagu works all year trying to put together a palatable schedule that brings in enough revenue to support the athletic department. One thing that has helped: Since ’19, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference has lost four teams in realignment shuffling; now the league plays 14 conference games, rather than 16, which opens up room for two more guarantee games on the calendar.
Coppin State’s schedule-building process begins with the Power 6 teams. Those schools generally pay the most, so those games get priority. They also provide the best chance for the Eagles to play on national TV, which is cool for players (and good for program exposure and recruiting). And those scheduling conversations can happen all year round, even after games. After an 89–54 loss to UConn to wrap up the season-opening four-games-in-five-days stretch, Agumagu stopped Huskies scheduling coordinator Eric Youngcofski in the postgame handshake line to let him know he’d be calling soon to see about playing again next year. Other times, Agumagu says he’ll be catching up on scores across the nation and see that a friend’s team had a nice win—so he’ll give them a call to watch up … and maybe slide in a conversation about playing in the future.
There’s some negotiation about prices and throw-ins—the covering of hotel costs is a common add-in—but Agumagu tries not to waste anyone’s time. He has too many teams to call and not enough time to be trading offers for weeks.
“When a top-25 school says the max they can offer is $80,000 plus hotels, you’re like, Dude, that doesn’t even make sense,” Agumagu says. “The last guy on your staff who is paid makes more than $80,000—and that’s after taxes.”
Coppin State, perhaps unsurprisingly, concluded its whirlwind first week of the season 0–5. The Eagles’ final game in that stretch was a 55–48 loss at UNC Greensboro in which CSU shot 28% from the field and 5 of 34 from deep. Tired legs may have contributed to those shooting woes, no matter how much Dixon and his staff worked to limit minutes. “We will not run guys into [a] hole,” Dixon had said adamantly after the loss to Loyola.
Indeed, no one played more than 25 minutes against UConn, the game with the shortest turnaround coming in. That outing tipped off approximately 15 hours after an 81–69 loss to Rider the night prior (which concluded with a three-hour lick-your-wounds bus ride from northern New Jersey to Hartford).
Even with that measured approach, Zarzuela played 146 minutes in the opening week. Backcourt mate Tarke played 152. In that context, the duo’s combined 3-of-18 shooting from deep against UNCG is somewhat justifiable.
So the team headed home on a six-plus-hour bus trip from Greensboro. Says Agumagu: “We literally couldn’t afford to fly [home].”
The return to Baltimore was a good one, albeit a short one. After arriving in the wee hours of the morning on Tuesday, Dixon gave his team a much-needed day off before it returned to action the next day for its first home game of the year against Loyola Maryland, a Patriot League foe (and Baltimore rival) far closer in competition level to what Coppin State will see in the MEAC. The result: a 71–49 victory over the Greyhounds that left everyone smiling.
“A lot of tension from being on the road was eased,” Gross says.
The on-floor leader for CSU that day, with 15 points and 13 rebounds: Corbett, who returned to play the final three road games after his altercation with Dixon at DePaul.
“I sat there and I watched the DePaul game, and I realized that no matter what is going on, my brothers are out there fighting without me,” Corbett says. “I felt like I was a little bit to blame for that loss.”
Since then, Corbett and the coaching staff have built a bond that is stronger than ever.
“I’m pretty sure that we didn’t have real conversations [before that], and sometimes that’s needed,” Corbett says. “After DePaul … we’ve had plenty of conversations and I feel like that made us grow. Some coaches, you can’t have real conversations about what’s going on, but the relationship is different here. I feel like they love me as a young man.”
After the home win over Loyola Maryland, the road warriors reboarded the bus, headed to Charlottesville—3.5 hours each way, give or take—and a 16-point loss to UVA; then home again, briefly, only to turn around less than 48 hours later for a 400-mile bus ride to Cleveland State, for a three-point loss. After a pitstop in Buffalo to play Canisius (a one-point loss), the Eagles headed home on that trusty bus, a trip that took another seven hours. That game tipped off at 2 p.m., which meant that CSU got home around midnight, rather than in the middle of the night, heading into Thanksgiving. Players took the holiday off, either going home for one day (if they were local) or heading to Dixon’s house to celebrate. But they couldn’t go far, because the bus for East Carolina—another six-hour trip—was scheduled to leave the next morning.
Those hours on the bus are part work, part play and part recovery. Zarzuela, Tarke and Corbett can often be found playing Uno on their phones, against each other. Other players watch movies or sleep. The coaches get work done, watching film and calling players’ attention to things they’ve found.
CSU’s staff is as small as you’ll find in Division I: three assistants and a director of ops—no additional support staff that can work on advanced scouting or recruiting or scheduling or any of the other back-end tasks that make a team run while the coaches focus on winning. At one point during the Eagles’ time in Chicago, all three assistants (Agumagu and brothers John Auslander and Kent Auslander) crowded with Dixon around a single table in a hotel meeting room, each coach watching film of a different upcoming opponent. The workspace was covered with empty Uncrustables wrappers, a few packs of fruit snacks and ample bottled water. At the lowest levels of Division I sports, multitasking is part of the job, and few college basketball staffs embody that standard the way Coppin State’s does during this road trip.
“I don’t know of many head coaches who are washing their players’ dirty laundry every night,” says Dixon, who jokes that his water bill back home spikes after game nights. Whether the Eagles lose by 58, like they did against Loyola Chicago, or on a buzzer beater, like they did at East Carolina, you can find Dixon afterward in a laundry room, making sure his team has clean gear for the next day.
“We all wear many hats,” Dixon says. “If I gotta do it, I’ll do it.”
For Coppin State, life on the road is far from over. The Eagles’ third home game of the season doesn’t come until Jan. 24, against Howard, their 22nd opponent of the season. But the most taxing parts of the schedule have come and gone. One nonconference journey out of the DC-Maryland-Virginia area remains—a post-Christmas trip to Indiana State—but no more extended road trips, back-to-backs or four-game weeks are left on the docket.