PHILADELPHIA -- The assignment was to venture into the heart of March Madness and find out how, or if, any Division I basketball player can be a college student at this time of year.
When others in the media room are informed of this by your humble correspondent, they are wide-eyed: You're doing WHAT? Undaunted, he goes in search of players who might be able to talk about juggling books with ball during the NCAA tournament, and who can do so with a face as straight as that of the moderators of the tournament's news conferences, who are under orders to refer to the players not as players but as "student-athletes."
Media guides are scanned, for mention of players -- er, student-athletes -- most likely to be engaged in academic pursuits. Character references are sought from those who might know something about the individuals in question. And finally, players are approached on a Wednesday, the day before East and West Region first-round games are to be contested in the Wachovia Center.
Eight teams have gathered, with UCLA and BYU having flown great distances the day before. And that in itself is enough to make the players' heads spin.
"We got here Tuesday night," says Jimmer Fredette, BYU's sophomore guard.
"Actually, it was about Tuesday afternoon, Tuesday morning," he says.
There will be open practices in the arena today, 40-minute sessions in front of sparse crowds in which each team will do little more than some light running and shooting. Actual practices will be held elsewhere, away from the prying eyes of those who might be able to discern the strategic wrinkles being put in place.
Players also have media sessions, meetings and meals to soak up their time, not to mention the games themselves the next day. And those teams that win will play again, in Saturday's second round, before returning to their respective campuses. The winners in that round get to repeat the process again the following week. Make the Final Four, and they do it a third time.
It's an exhausting grind on the heels of an exhausting season. But there are those capable of mustering the time and energy for the classroom.
"If you're really focused, you can get it done," says Fredette, an American studies major. "It's just a matter of you wanting to do it and being able to have the time-management [skills] to do it."
"You never just have time to focus on school, but I mean, it's a job, you know?" says UCLA forward James Keefe. "We use our spare time to play basketball. The average college student has a lot of spare time, and they go in and play pickup or something."
Those players able to keep their academic houses in order agree that it's crucial to stay organized. That they must communicate with their professors, letting them know when the team's schedule will force them to miss a class or turn in an assignment late.
And it goes without saying that players who are interested in an education now were long ago made aware of how important it is to get one. Consider Chattanooga guard Stephen McDowell, the Mocs' leading scorer. He is a graduate student, having earned a degree in finance in three years (the first two of which he spent at South Carolina).
His mother, Kamona, is an elementary-school principal in his native Indianapolis. And, he says, "She does not play when it comes to those academics."
Growing up, he notes, there was "no playing basketball, no going outside, any of that stuff" until his schoolwork was done. Same for his younger siblings.
It was much the same for Villanova senior center/forward Dante Cunningham, whose parents, Ron Cunningham and Searcy Blankenship, both spent over 30 years in the Air Force.
"I couldn't touch a basketball, I couldn't go outside, I couldn't look at a TV, I couldn't do anything," Dante says, "until I had my homework done. It was almost to the point in high school where I had to get my notebook/homework thing signed by all the teachers to make sure I had all my work [done]."
Others' motivation is not quite so direct. Take American's senior point guard Derrick Mercer, who on this Wednesday finds himself triple-teamed by reporters from the New York metropolitan area, all eager to hear his tale.
It is a good one, almost as good as that of his team, which defended its Patriot League championship and is making its second straight tournament appearance as a result. Mercer, listed at 5-foot-9 but actually 5-7, comes out of Jersey City, N.J., where he played for coach Bob Hurley's prep power, St. Anthony. (Mercer was as a result prominently featured in Adrian Wojnarowski's 2005 book, "The Miracle of St. Anthony.")
Mercer tells the media types that he considered giving up basketball in his senior year of high school, when three of his teammates were nominated for the McDonald's All-America Game and he was not. He says he almost transferred after his freshman year at American when he fathered a son, Julius Isaiah, with his girlfriend back home.
But he has stayed, and in May stands to become the first in his family to earn a college degree. It will be in audio production.
"It definitely means a lot," he says, "because I'm also a father. With my son seeing that I'm getting a degree, hopefully that will make him want to get a degree. He lives in a rough city, and right now the path that he's going is not too good. Hopefully by him seeing that his dad is getting a degree and by showing what education is for, that will make him feel that education is important."
Cunningham says by the time he was a high school senior his parents backed off, knowing that in college he would have to handle academic matters on his own. He says he has done that while working toward a degree in communications. He has been especially careful to keep his professors apprised of his travel schedule and the like, and he says they have been willing to meet him halfway as a result.
"It always comes back to communicating with teachers," he says, standing in a locker room immediately after completing a mass interview focusing on the next day's game, against Mercer's Eagles. "They understand that you're tired, that you're putting in the extra work on the court, things like that. I feel like [things will be all right] as long as you're talking to them and not just showing up and sitting there and saying 'Hey, I'm whoever.' "
McDowell is an inveterate planner, always committing his non-classroom schedule to paper.
"I have a time set up where, 'Hey, I'm going to study during this time; I'm going to get my morning workout in here,' " he says. "You try and have yourself a weekly set-up."
Exempt from the team's study halls because of his GPA -- he says he had between a 3.4 and 3.5 when he earned his undergraduate degree -- he usually hits the books around 7 p.m.
"I keep it consistent," he says.
Most teams schedule study halls at the hotel when on the road. BYU does not.
"It's on our own," Fredette says. "They stress [the need] to get out there and do it ourselves."
In some cases, that isn't possible. Keefe, a junior majoring in international development studies, arrives in Philadelphia knowing he's among those UCLA players who must take final exams. In fact, he has two: political science and Eastern European history.
Sitting among his teammates, waiting for the open practice to start, he says he will "definitely" take one exam Friday, the day after the Bruins' first-round game against VCU.
"I might take the other after the next game," he says, apparently expecting a victory over the Rams.
He's right, but only barely: UCLA nips VCU by a point. Two days later the Bruins are blown out by Villanova, which had rallied from 14 points down to beat American in the first round.
Connecticut blasts Chattanooga and Texas A&M in its two games, the Aggies after they had eased past BYU in their opener.
There will be more ball this year for Cunningham -- and, he hopes, beyond.
Mercer and McDowell also hope to play somewhere professionally. So, too, do Fredette and Keefe, who have college eligibility remaining.
Further down the road, Cunningham figures he can get into broadcasting.
Keefe believes his future might lie in consulting, Fredette in teaching, Mercer in music; American's point guard says he and teammate Frank Borden plan to one day start a production company: "our own little label," as he calls it.
McDowell says he would like to work with children when he's done playing, that perhaps he can do as his great-grandfather did and run a youth camp where he can "just teach them about life."
That's what athletics have taught him, he adds.
And now, he wants to continue "just kind of using sports."
As opposed to the other way around.
Gordie Jones is a freelance writer in Pennsylvania.