No matter how many plantain chips, lentil crackers and vegetable wraps Allison Kellaher arranged on the wraparound buffet table outside the Belasco Room at the Westin New York at Times Square hotel, the members of the Marquette men’s basketball team still stood around waiting.
“Where are they?” one asked.
After some tense moments, the steaming hot platter of medium-rare hamburgers finally arrived. The players, their sweaty practice uniforms in a pile down the hall, loaded up their plates, two patties at a time. Kellaher, Marquette’s coordinator of basketball administration, stood back and rolled her eyes.
“We’ve come a long way,” she said. “We still have a long way to go.”
Almost three years after Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier’s stunning admission at the Final Four that he often went to bed “starving,” the N.C.A.A. has lifted many of its most archaic restrictions on feeding scholarship athletes. Teams can now supply unlimited meals and snacks, and many programs have hired full-time nutritionists and dietitians to steer athletes into better eating habits. On campus, that means training tables filled with fruits and yogurts, and smoothie bars instead of soda machines.
For people like Kellaher, though, the changes also mean that in addition to her hefty logistical load overseeing the day-to-day operations of a frequently traveling team headed to its first N.C.A.A. tournament since 2013, she now has added another role: nutritionist.
Kellaher’s face lit up. “Yes. Just try it.”
“What if I don’t like it?” Howard asked. He sniffed it and put it down.
Road trips — with their strange surroundings and unfamiliar food — are always a bigger challenge than the times the team is on campus, and the postseason creates perhaps the biggest one yet. For an N.C.A.A. tournament team about to spend several consecutive nights in a hotel, controlling what the players should — and should not — ingest is a calculus with newfound significance. Marquette Coach Steve Wojciechowski, a former guard at Duke, said that, in his playing days, he and his teammates subsisted mostly on cantina tacos and barbecued chicken. That is hardly the case anymore.
Nutritionists say that the steady deregulation of restrictions on feeding college athletes has contributed to a transformation of the mind-sets of many players about the link between healthy eating and performance, and its effect for both home and away games.
“During tournament time, I’m always trying to think of what I can put in there to help with inflammation and recovery,” Link said. The March snack bags consist of lots of nuts, chia seeds and cherry juice. Nut butter, she said, is another player favorite.
“It seems kind of excessive as you’re doing it,” Link said. “But when you think of fueling Isaac Haas” — Purdue’s 7-foot-2, 290-pound center — “the kid can eat a lot of food. I’m never worried about putting too much in there.”
Texas went from having two registered dietitians on staff in 2014 to six now. This, according to Amy Culp, the sports dietitian at Texas — where the women’s basketball team earned a No. 3 seed in the N.C.A.A. women’s tournament — has inspired a departmentwide re-education initiative to help athletes and coaches understand how to build and maintain better eating habits.
“If they understand the ‘why’ behind what we’re doing,” Culp wrote in an email, “it helps create more buy-in and decrease the mentality that we’re trying to be the ‘diet police.’”
Kellaher is not an accredited dietitian (Marquette is considering adding a full-time nutritionist to its staff). But, emblematic of the foodie craze, she has enthusiastically adopted her unofficial role as the basketball team’s meal czar. After the Golden Eagles arrived in New York last Tuesday, she was up early Wednesday scouting Times Square’s juice bars to procure drinks for the players to sample. Instead of Carmine’s, the family-style Italian restaurant where the team ate dinner one night last year, she sought to arrange for Hu Kitchen, a gluten-free haven for vegans and Paleo dieters, to cater Marquette’s flight home.
Some relics of a bygone eating era endure, though.
“I would one day aspire to never see those Fruity Pebbles out on my table,” Kellaher said at breakfast one morning, motioning toward a large bowl at the distant end of the buffet. “But you can’t just clear it all out or people will feel deprived.”
Despite the multitude of food options in the heart of New York City — Marquette’s hotel last week was, tantalizingly, across the street from a Shake Shack — the players seemed able to resist temptation. They even took to the grain-free tortilla chips and salsa.
As the players waited for their burgers, a few staff members had already begun thinking about future meals.
“I was reading this thing on Villanova,” said the video coordinator Jake Presutti. “They eat fish at every meal.”