Originally Published: February 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.

Shaka Smart
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.

Ryan
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 traveled to Madison probably would present a similar conspiracy theory about Wisconsin's home floor.

These are the things coaches and players sometimes consider whenever they're slated to face a conference foe on the road. What happens on the court is the only result that matters.

But the period that precedes the actual game is significant, too. The programs that achieve that balance also may enjoy the most success on the road down the stretch.

"On the road it's always tough," Graves said. "You have to play right as a team."

You have to eat right, too.

THE RUNDOWN

Potentially crucial road games for contenders:

ACC: Miami at Duke, March 2 -- Duke's loss at Maryland on Saturday changed the ACC race. The Blue Devils (9-3) don't control their fate. They'll need the Hurricanes (12-0) to take a few L's before and/or after their second meeting of the season on March 2 to make that matchup more meaningful. Still, it's a game that could decide the ACC title. And it's also an opportunity for payback more than a month after the Canes beat the Blue Devils by 27 points on Jan. 23. But it could become the coronation for a Miami team that's surprised the conference and has not lost in ACC play.

Atlantic 10: VCU at Saint Louis, Tuesday -- For all of the talk about the Rams' "HAVOC" defense, their offense has jelled in Atlantic 10 play. Their 77.5 ppg tops the conference. Saint Louis, however, leads the league with 61.6 ppg allowed. VCU (9-2) and Saint Louis (8-2) are first and second in the standings. But the Atlantic 10 is so competitive it doesn't feel like any team has truly separated itself from the rest of the field.

Big 12: Kansas State at Oklahoma State, March 9 -- Right now, the Big 12 is locked in a three-way tie for first place. But the Wildcats (9-3) are at a disadvantage because they've been swept by the Jayhawks. Their late-season matchup against the Cowboys, however, could be pivotal for their Big 12 title hopes. With a victory, they'd sweep the Cowboys (Kansas State won 73-67 on Jan. 5).

Big East: Syracuse at Marquette, Feb. 25 -- Entering the week, Marquette, Georgetown and Syracuse all possessed 9-3 conference records. Syracuse will face the Hoyas twice in the coming weeks, and it'll go for the sweep when Louisville travels to the Carrier Dome on March 2. But the Orange face Marquette just once this season. And it's in Milwaukee, where the Golden Eagles have won 23 consecutive games.

Big Ten: Indiana at Michigan State, Tuesday -- This is the first of three tough road games for the Hoosiers. The Hoosiers regained their No. 1 slot with a win at Ohio State last weekend, but they were shaky in the final minutes of a loss to Illinois preceding that. Tuesday's matchup against Michigan State, which also owns an 11-2 record, is for first place in the Big Ten. The Hoosiers certainly haven't been flawless on the road under coach Tom Crean. How will they fare in East Lansing? And Minneapolis? And Ann Arbor? The Hoosiers might not secure the Big Ten title, or even a slice of it, if they fail outside Bloomington in the coming weeks.

Missouri Valley Conference: Wichita State at Creighton, March 2 -- The MVC has been one of the most unpredictable leagues in the country. Wichita State and Creighton have suffered surprising losses in recent weeks. Northern Iowa, Indiana State and Illinois State have surged up the standings. Right now, however, Wichita State (11-4) and Creighton (10-5) are on top of the conference. And if that's still the case March 2, then these two could be battling for the conference crown that night. Wichita State won the first meeting at home, but the Shockers were 1-3 in four road games prior to their win Sunday at Illinois State.

Mountain West: Colorado State at Boise State, March 2 -- Much like the MVC, the Mountain West is a very confusing assembly right now. Colorado State (8-2) sits behind first-place New Mexico (9-2) in the standings. I have no doubt the Rams will be prepared against UNLV in Las Vegas on Tuesday and their home matchup against New Mexico next weekend. But they could win both and still fall at Boise State. The Lobos needed overtime to win there. UNLV lost at Boise State on Feb. 2. The Rams don't have any easy games left in this competitive conference. This is definitely one that they can't overlook.

SEC: Florida at Missouri, Tuesday -- The Tigers might be the only SEC team that could give Florida problems in the coming weeks. Florida (11-1) is two games ahead of second-place Alabama (9-3). Other than their loss at Arkansas, the Gators have not been blemished in conference play. But if there's any chance of a late slide by Florida, it could begin in Columbia, where the Tigers are a different team. The same Mizzou squad that has lost to Arkansas, LSU and Texas A&M on the road defeated Ole Miss by 19 points at home on Feb. 9.

Pac-12: Arizona at UCLA, March 2 -- Oregon has the inside track to the Pac-12 title. The Ducks (10-3) already have defeated Arizona, UCLA and Arizona State in their first and only meetings with those teams this season. But the Wildcats and Bruins (both 9-4) are clearly in the mix. A Wildcats road win over the Bruins would allow them to avoid the sweep and rise in the standings. They can't control what happens in Eugene, but a second loss to UCLA probably would ruin their chances of securing a slice of the crown.

The Weekly Forecast

By Myron Medcalf | ESPN.com

A quick look at the temperature of college basketball as we head into a new week:

Mid-major bubble teams

Hot: Louisiana Tech (RPI: 51) is still in a tough situation. The WAC is so weak that the Bulldogs don't have any quality conference teams that can boost their résumeé. They've won 15 in a row and probably will enter the conference tourney on a 20-game winning streak. But one loss could eliminate their chances of remaining in the at-large conversation. They'll probably need a WAC tourney championship to guarantee a bid.

Cold: Creighton's 71-68 win over Evansville on Saturday was a positive development for the Bluejays (RPI: 45), who looked like a lock for the NCAA tournament just a few weeks ago. It doesn't change the fact that they've lost three of their past four in the MVC.

International prospects

Alex Len
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyMaryland is capable of hanging with the ACC elites when Alex Len goes off.

Hot: Gonzaga's Kelly Olynyk has scored 17 points or more in the past three games. The 7-footer from British Columbia is one of the reasons Mark Few's program could advance deep into the NCAA tournament. He will be a matchup problem for every team in America next month. ... Maryland's Alex Len is the most critical piece of the Terps' hopes of earning an at-large bid. The sophomore from Ukraine finished Saturday's 83-81 win over Duke with 19 points, 9 rebounds and 3 blocks. In February, the Terps are undefeated (3-0) when he scores 10 or more points.

Cold: Saint Mary's Matthew Dellavedova is one of the most talented guards in the country, but the Australian maestro has struggled on the road in recent weeks. After Saturday's 1-for-5 outing in a 61-50 win at Loyola Marymount, Dellavedova is 15-for-48 (31.2 percent) in the past five road games.

Tennessee

Hot: There's a lot of good basketball in the state of Tennessee right now. The Vols are rolling (three consecutive wins, including Saturday's 30-point victory over Kentucky) and are capable of winning five of their last six matchups to potentially sneak into the Big Dance. Memphis wasn't pretty for 40 minutes against Marshall, but coach Josh Pastner's program secured its 16th consecutive win over the weekend. And Middle Tennessee has won 12 consecutive games. Coach Kermit Davis earned a Sun Belt-record 113th victory in the Blue Raiders' 66-61 win over Louisiana-Monroe.

Cold: Belmont has lost two of its past three games. At 11-2, the Bruins are still on top of the Ohio Valley's East Division. Barely. They've swept Eastern Kentucky (10-3), but the Colonels have won five in a row. The latter could surge past a Belmont team that's struggled the past week.