UA basketball: Is altitude a lofty challenge?

Answer still up in the air as Cats head to Utah, CU
2012-01-19T00:00:00Z 2014-07-24T10:35:45Z UA basketball: Is altitude a lofty challenge?Bruce Pascoe Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
January 19, 2012 12:00 am  • 

During a chat with longtime coaching buddy Sean Miller last summer, Colorado coach Tad Boyle went out of his way to talk about how high the elevation is at the Buffs' home arena.

It was more of a friendly warning, the way Boyle explained it, than any sort of psychological ploy.

Both Colorado's Coors Events Center and Utah's Huntsman Center, which Arizona will visit this weekend during its first-ever Pac-12 Rocky Mountain swing, sit about a mile above sea level with air that Boyle insists is different.

"I'll be honest with you," Boyle said. "I don't think it's psychological. It's reality. The players feel it when they run up and down the floor. Wherever they're coming from, they feel it from the first time they work out.

"It's not a matter of trying to plant it in coaches' heads. There's less oxygen than at sea level and it's an advantage."

Well-traveled Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak, a former Utah Jazz player now in his first season at the 4,800-foot Huntsman Center, also swears it's true.

"Definitely," he said. "I played here and even when I came into this environment (as a coach), some of the workouts on the treadmills, there was a difference for me, and I know our guys feel it."

Experts suggest the high-altitude coaches may not be bluffing, though it's a smart strategy for them to get everyone else thinking about it.

"I think there is a mental component but clearly a physical impact as well," said Ben Honigman, director of the Altitude Medical Clinic at the University of Colorado.

Benjamin Levine, director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine and a professor at Texas-Southwestern, said there's "absolutely" no doubt there is some impact for basketball players at higher altitudes.

Having consulted with soccer governing body FIFA, Levine said the aerobic and stop-start requirements in basketball are similar to those of soccer.

In a paper published by the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, Levine wrote that "altitude has a profound effect on exercise and sports performance" because aerobic performance is impaired and because the thinner air reduces drag resistance, which can affect the spin of a basketball or soccer.

Levine said basketball players may be thrown off by a ball that spins and arcs differently because of the lesser air resistance.

"The same push sends the ball farther and (the air) slows the curve," Levine said.

But basketball hasn't been studied as much as many Olympic sports, and there are two arguments that say it may not matter much for the Wildcats this weekend.

For one thing, says Ray Browning, an assistant professor of physical activity at the University of Southern Colorado, the elevations of the Utah and Colorado arenas are on the lower end of the altitudes that can impact performance.

For another, there is some anecdotal evidence in Denver that argues against it making any sort of difference.

"Professional teams come in and play the Nuggets and they'll do very, very well," Honigman said, chuckling. "So a lot of it is talent and a lot of it is fine-tune conditioning."

That's what Miller says he believes. Boyle is 27-3 at Coors Events Center since taking over the Buffaloes before last season but that mark, Miller says, has more to do with Boyle than the air.

"I'm sure if I was him, I'd bring it up constantly - it's to his advantage," Miller said. "Colorado is an excellent team probably more because of their coaching and talent than because of the altitude, I would think."

Miller said the topic of altitude didn't come up when his 14th-seeded Xavier team lost to third-seeded Gonzaga by only four points in the 2006 NCAA tournament and Arizona's recent history at high elevation also suggests no major trend.

Only at New Mexico (1-4) have the Wildcats routinely struggled since entering the Pac-12 in 1978. At high elevation in the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats are 7-5, with a mix of memories at Salt Lake City: They were shocked by Santa Clara there in the 1993 tournament and ousted by Wisconsin in 2000 but held off Gonzaga in an exhausting double-overtime effort in 2003.

While most of the NCAA tournament games were against teams that also came from low elevation, the Wildcats did beat a respectable Wyoming team at Albuquerque in 2002.

This season, the two Pac-12 coaches who have already made the Utah-Colorado swing downplayed the thin air.

Washington State coach Ken Bone, whose team lost to both the Utes and Buffaloes, said he didn't think "it made any difference at all," while Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said he was still uncertain.

"I'm still trying to find that out," Romar said. "I've played at altitude many times as a player and I remember for the first couple of minutes thinking 'Wow, this is crazy.' But the first seven minutes at Colorado we were up 14-5."

However, the Huskies wound up losing to Colorado, 87-69. Washington guard C.J. Wilcox, who hit three early shots to help put the Huskies up by nine, said after the game that he became winded by the altitude.

Of course, it's difficult to tell how much fatigue was really a factor for Wilcox and the Huskies: They've long had a tough time on the road and are 1-5 away from Seattle this season.

But Levine said recovery is particularly difficult at altitude, noting that an athlete typically needs three times the amount of time for rest as used in a sprint.

"The ability to do a single sprint is certainly unaffected," Levine said. "The first sprint is always faster. But the ability to do multiple competitive sprints is impaired."

The good news for Arizona is that the Wildcats will first play the weaker Utes tonight, then travel to Colorado via charter after the game. So they'll have plenty of time to get ready to face the Buffaloes - and the air - on late Saturday afternoon.

"They'll be better" Saturday, Levine said. "If Arizona goes to Colorado on Friday they'll be a little more acclimatized. Their shooting should be better and they should have more understanding what it takes."

On StarNet: See Sean Miller's take on turnovers and other mistakes at azstarnet.com/video and see an interactive insider on the game against Utah at azstarnet.com/multimedia

Arizona at altitude

The Wildcats' record while playing at high altitude elevations since joining the Pac-10 Conference in 1978:

Northern Arizona 3-0

Utah 1-2

BYU* 1-1

New Mexico 1-4

Total 6-7

*counting last season's BYU-UA game in Salt Lake City

In NCAA tournaments

At Albuquerque 2-1

At Salt Lake City 5-2

At Denver 0-2

Total 7-5

What Sean Miller should do

Recommendations for high altitude basketball play by Benjamin Levine, director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine and a professor at Texas-Southwestern:

1) Practice shooting as soon as possible after arrival, to get accustomed to the different arc and spin of the ball in the thin air.

2) Substitute more often

3) Keep players hydrated and have extra oxygen on the sidelines.

Elevations, in feet

Arizona, McKale Center: 2,390

Utah, Huntsman Center: 4,800

Colorado, Coors Events Center: 5,345

One mile: 5,280

Today

• Who: Arizona at Utah

• When: 6:30 p.m.

• TV: Ch 58 (Ch 8 on Cox and Comcast), FSAZ

• Radio: 1290-AM, 107.5-FM

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Pac-12 basketball standings

  Conference Overall
Team W L T PCT W L T PCT
Arizona 0 0 0 0.000 11 0 0 1.000
Washington 0 0 0 0.000 9 0 0 1.000
California 0 0 0 0.000 9 1 0 0.900
UCLA 0 0 0 0.000 8 3 0 0.727
Oregon 0 0 0 0.000 7 3 0 0.700
Oregon State 0 0 0 0.000 7 2 0 0.778
Utah 0 0 0 0.000 7 2 0 0.778
Arizona State 0 0 0 0.000 6 4 0 0.600
Stanford 0 0 0 0.000 6 2 0 0.750
Colorado 0 0 0 0.000 6 3 0 0.667
USC 0 0 0 0.000 6 4 0 0.600
Washington State 0 0 0 0.000 4 6 0 0.400

AP Top 25


Pac-12 basketball schedule

Teams Date Time
Loyola Marymount at
Stanford
12/17 58-67
Grambling at
Washington
12/17 38-86
DePaul at
Oregon State
12/18 8:00 pm
Eastern Washington at
California
12/19 8:00 pm
Arizona at
UTEP
12/19 9:00 pm
Delaware State at
Oregon
12/20 1:00 pm
Lehigh at
Arizona State
12/20 7:00 pm
Oklahoma at
Washington
12/20 7:00 pm
Tulane at
Washington
12/22 9:00 pm
Detroit at
Arizona State
12/23 1:00 pm
Stanford at
Texas
12/23 5:00 pm
South Dakota State at
Utah
12/23 7:00 pm
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