KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- It was 1: 30 on a Wednesday afternoon and all 13 Maryland basketball players were packed into a tiny locker room at Thompson-Boling Arena on the University of Tennessee campus.
On benches and chairs, they awaited the crush of reporters armed with questions. It is about 30 hours before the Terps' 76-62 loss to St. John's in the semifinals of the NCAA South Regional -- otherwise known as the Sweet 16.
It was the 13th day out of the past 20 that the Maryland players have been away from their classes in College Park.
The team takes chartered flights to all games. During the tournament, the players and coaches left Maryland two days before their games and returned immediately after their last game played at each site.
Last week they spent five days in Orlando, Fla. This week it was Knoxville. Winning both games here would have qualified the team to advance to the Final Four next week in St. Petersburg, Fla.
And schoolwork? Tests, labs, papers, homework? These are college students, after all.
"This is an educational experience," Maryland coach Gary Williams says in the days leading up to the loss to St. John's. "It is something the players will remember for the rest of their lives. Sure, keeping up with the books is tough. All the players know they have to keep in touch with their professors constantly to have any chance of making it through this tough time."
The university provides academic help on the road, but the distractions are many.
Fans are constantly asking team stars such as Steve Francis and Laron Profit for autographs, and players report to media interview sessions every day.
"It's very easy to forget about your classes out here in this atmosphere," says senior guard Norman Fields, a bench warmer. "You can put the books out of your mind because there is so much going on. I keep a little magazine on the dresser in my hotel room to remind me of what I have to do in my classes."
Fields was one test behind when the team left for Knoxville on Tuesday. Freshman center Lonny Baxter needed to make up one test. Junior guard Matt Hahn says he had to reschedule four tests.
"My problem has been making up the makeups," says Hahn. The son of assistant coach and onetime Terps player Billy Hahn, he sees little game action.
Two more reserves, sophomore forward LaRon Cephas and senior forward Brian Watkins, also have two or more tests to make up.
"We have study halls from 6: 30 to 8 o'clock each night, and that helps me a lot," says Francis. He is a transfer from Allegany Community College who is learning to combine the rigors of classwork at a four-year school with the pressures of big-time basketball. He expects to be able to catch up his academic work when the team returns to College Park -- unless the junior opts for the NBA a year early.
Three college officials help the players keep up with their study obligations. Antoine Goff, the academic counselor for the men's basketball team, is traveling with the players for the tournament. During the regular season, assistant coach Jimmy Patsos is in charge of making sure the players keep up with their studies on the road.
Demetrius Marlowe, assistant athletic director for academic support, is responsible to see that the entire process works. He says he has yet to run across a situation where a professor didn't give a player an opportunity to make up a test or other back work.
"There is a university policy that says any person representing the school at an event has an excused absence and the professor has to give that person an opportunity to make up everything at an agreed-upon time," Marlowe says.
He adds that players learn to cope with all the pressures, which include dealing with their peers. "You have to remember," he says, "if they lose they have to come back on campus and look their fellow students in the eye."
Profit, a senior, seems unfazed by the ever-constant battle with the books.
"I've been through it so much I don't even worry anymore about it," he says. "I know what needs to be done. I don't have to go to the study halls. They're for the freshmen and new guys."
Senior center Obinna Ekezie, a mechanical engineering major, is injured and hasn't played for a month. But he is traveling with the team and admits to having some trouble keeping up with his studies.
Only two players, sophomore center Mike Mardesich and freshman guard Danny Miller, can afford to be a little smug about their classes.
"I had two tests and a paper to make up before I came here, and I did it," says Mardesich. The 7-footer scored 1,300 on his SAT and carries about a 3.5 grade-point average in the classroom. "I'm all caught up. Sometimes it means staying up really late, but I do it."