Without games, Bears had more study time
Forget about the Maui Invitational, the ACC-Big Ten Challenge or any other intense, competitive November or December games.
Picture a college basketball season with the games beginning in January. Over the years, there have been some academicians within the NCAA membership who have proposed making college basketball, essentially, a one-semester sport. The thinking is that grades and graduation rates would become much better.
Of course, there are financial issues and contractual demands that likely make this a moot point. Too many schools rely on games being played in November and December for home gate receipts and TV revenue is too critical to be tossed aside for a two-month span of the regular season. And how could you move the NCAA Tournament out of March?
The NCAA management council actually is going in the opposite direction by endorsing a proposal that would start the season on the second Friday of November and allow schools to play an extra game to get to 29 total, instead of counting the conference tournament as a game toward the limit.
Still, if the NCAA wanted a test case of what it's like for men's basketball to be a one-semester sport, like football, it forced Baylor to be the guinea pig after violations committed under Dave Bliss were uncovered during the investigation following the murder of Patrick Dennehy by teammate Carlton Dotson in June 2003.
Surprisingly, the Bears did quite well during the ban. That doesn't mean they want to do it again or have anyone else go through it, but it wasn't as bad as advertised.
Last semester, while Gonzaga's Adam Morrison and Duke's J.J. Redick seemed to be matching each other with one stellar game after another, the Bears were idle. They weren't playing, but they were apparently studying. The grades improved. The study habits apparently were better. Class attendance was higher.
"I really did notice that attendance in class was better with us not traveling," said Greg Davis, a former Baylor player who has been the team's academic advisor the past 18 months.
Davis said that since the Bears started charting fall semester GPAs in 1997, this past semester was the third-highest for a team GPA.
"The numbers were significantly better than they had been in the past, and it wasn't far off from being the best fall semester," said Davis, who declined to give the figure.
Bears coach Scott Drew argued that players tend to do well when they have more structure -- when they're moving like chess pieces from practice, to eat, to study table, to bed, up for class again and again. And not having any games to play certainly adds more structure to their day-to-day routine. The Bears' players were also afforded the normal time off for Thanksgiving and Christmas break, something that doesn't happen for men's basketball players around the country.
"I know I had better grades this past semester," Baylor sophomore Aaron Bruce said. "When we were in the thick of the Big 12 season when we were traveling, there was less time [to study]."
Baylor senior Tommy Swanson, the only remaining holdover from Bliss' team, said he actually was able to concentrate more time on his academics because he didn't have to study opponents over the past two months.
"We usually had a lot of home games in the fall, so traveling wasn't the issue, but we don't have to study another team's plays and scouting reports," Swanson said.
Still, Swanson said he didn't notice a dramatic change in his grades, although he said his mind was freer to focus more on his classes.
To no one's surprise, the Bears also spent plenty of time practicing and sharpening their fundamentals, which got stale as the Bears waited and waited for their season opener Wednesday night at Texas Tech. (On the bright side, Baylor is eligible for the Big 12 conference tournament.)
Drew tried to mix it up by taking the team on the road for a scrimmage in Dallas. But going against each other for so long got old. Drew said if the NCAA ever wanted to make basketball a one-semester sport, it would have to push the practice starting date much later into the fall.
"I'm in favor of keeping it two semesters," Drew said. "[This has been] too long to practice without competition. People are used to playing games. There wouldn't be too many players going to college to practice all the time and not play many games. I think you'd lose a lot of international players."
Bruce, who is from Australia, agreed, saying he came to the States for the full collegiate experience.
"You can spend time on the aspects of your game that you've neglected, like shooting and ball handling," Bruce said. "But the reason to come here to play is to further your basketball career, and to [only] do it for one semester, I think you'd see international guys thinking twice about not coming over here."
"I don't see anything wrong with two semesters," Swanson said. "I don't see anything wrong with the way it is in college basketball."
Neither do the NCAA administrators, because no one with a strong enough voice is pushing for it to become a one-semester sport. But if this ever comes up in a serious conversation among NCAA member schools, they have the staff and players at Baylor to offer a testimonial -- and while the players' grades may have improved, they're not about to support a switch.
Senior writer Andy Katz covers men's college basketball for ESPN.com.
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