ST. LOUIS — Every important detail of this NCAA Tournament weekend is listed on one document on Barry Hinson’s smartphone. Bus schedules, meals, phone numbers, meeting times.
It is all mapped with the goal of making the stay in St. Louis as normal as possible for the University of Kansas basketball players, here to play North Carolina State tonight in the Sweet 16 at the Edward Jones Dome.
There is one problem with that lofty goal.
“You got no shot, no shot,” said Hinson, KU’s director of basketball operations. “You can say that all you want. But you’ve got no shot at doing that.”
No, probably not. The crowds, the hoopla, the cameras – March Madness isn’t like a February game against Texas Tech, even for a high-profile program such as KU.
Hinson aims for stress-free, a close relative of normal that can also help win games.
“Coach (Bill) Self’s philosophy has always been that our players are here to play the game, so make it as enjoyable and stress-free as possible,” Hinson said. “The game is stressful enough.”
For Hinson and his counterparts, that means relying on routine. The operations directors, the video coordinators, the managers and strength coaches — they are the behind-the-scenes people who help these multimillion-dollar enterprises run.
“You want to keep the routine for the kids as they have experienced it all year,” said Jeff Dunlap, North Carolina State’s director of operations. “We are certainly scrambling on very short notice to go into cities and arenas and practice facilities. We’re doing all this helter-skelter. We don’t want the kids to see any of that.”
The NCAA charters a plane and assigns a hotel. The NCAA gives the schools times and places for practice, media duties and games. The school must fill most of the rest. Dunlap wants practice and travel to mimic the regular season as closely as possible.
“They just give you a schedule,” Hinson said. “It’s a puzzle. And it’s not a 500-piece puzzle. This is a big jigsaw puzzle.
“It’s a puzzle that takes a lot of people, a lot of help.”
Planning the trip
Hinson’s attempt to organize this trip begins with the sheet on his smartphone. If any person in the traveling party needs help, help is on that sheet.
It includes a weather forecast, so people know what to wear. It includes the hotel address because his mom wants to know where he stays.
The name of the bus driver is listed. So are the KU host and the tournament director, with their phone numbers.
The Jayhawks practiced at St. John Vianney High in Kirkwood, Mo., before Thursday’s public practice at the Dome. They will eat Chipotle for lunch and at Ruth’s Chris Steak House for dinner on this trip.
KU’s philosophy is to plan for success, so a schedule for Saturday and Sunday is included, with times to be determined. KU must win tonight to ensure it’s still in town over the weekend.
“We always eat one meal off-site,” Hinson said. “From that point on, we’re on lockdown.”
Hinson came to St. Louis a day early for planning. Routes are timed. Hotel rooms and meeting rooms are checked out to make sure they are supplied with adequate video equipment. Every time KU travels, it reserves an extra room in case somebody gets sick and needs to be isolated. A staff nutritionist plans the menu for meals served in the hotel.
“When Coach Self opens up his room, everything he needs is right there and ready to go,” Hinson said. “Laptops, films, DVDs. Everything. When we walk into our team room, it’s set up and ready to go. If we go somewhere, it’s already been driven.”
Players worry about their jump shots and their next meal, not always in that order. Hinson, and his staff, are in charge of making sure the eating doesn’t get in the way of practicing jump shots.
Eddie Sutton, the former Oklahoma State coach, told Hinson that his team went to restaurants to eat, not to dine. Clock management matters, in the final minutes of a game and when planning a meal for a team that wants to get to the Final Four.
On Wednesday, the 68-person traveling party ate at Ruth’s Chris. On Monday, the staff provided those people a menu. They compiled a spreadsheet with the orders and e-mailed it to the restaurant, located in KU’s hotel in downtown St. Louis. Hinson scheduled dinner to start at 8:30 p.m. and told the players 8:25.
“The last kid walked in at 8:24:45,” Hinson said. “We look up and all 68 people are seated. I looked at the guy and said, ‘Go.’
“All of sudden, here come 12 waiters and waitresses and here come the appetizers. I told them I don’t want the song to ever pause.”
Those details and planning are just as important to the three other schools in St. Louis. After North Carolina State’s practice, video coordinator Nima Omidvar stands at the lockerroom door, reminding players to wear their Wolfpack shirts when they leave.
Moving his operation is easier than planning a meal or a bus trip. He needs laptops and an Internet connection to help assistant coach Bobby Lutz work scouting reports. On Dec. 6, Omidvar recorded the Long Beach State-Kansas game because Wolfpack coaches regarded both teams as possible NCAA opponents.
“We’ve got all the Kansas film for the entire season loaded up, Ohio, North Carolina, obviously we’ve played them three times already this year,” he said. “We look to have anything the coaches would possibly want film-wise or game prep-wise, as far as statistics or bios, prepared, whether or not they actually use it.”
The Wolfpack practiced at Saint Louis University. They were scheduled to eat at the Cheesecake Factory on Thursday night. Dunlap is careful about getting the team out on the town.
“We’re selective about that,” he said. “The spotlight is on them right now, and if we go to a restaurant there are cameras and there are people tweeting. It’s such a different world.
“The more we hunker down and stay to ourselves, the better. It’s less distraction.”
Distractions are everywhere in March for an NCAA Tournament team. That is the part of the routine only a good schedule can minimize.