Five teams who tested their mettle by taking trips abroad
So what did you do on your summer vacation?
For most college basketball teams, the month of August is a time for summer school, basketball camps and lots of pickup games. For a small handful of teams, however, the month included an exhibition trip to a foreign country. The NCAA allows coaches to take their teams on these missions once every four years. The biggest upside, however, isn't the games; it's the 10 practices they're permitted to conduct prior to their departure. Taking advantage of this quadrennial opportunity allows coaches to get a head start on the season while providing their players a chance to broaden their cultural horizons.
These trips abroad also afford coaches the chance to learn something about their teams they would not otherwise know. Here, then, is a Hoop Thoughts roundup of pre-Labor Day trips taken by five prominent programs. We'll find out later this fall if the lessons they learned abroad will help them make the grade, or whether, once the seasons begins, they'll only get taken to school.
Kansas: Ottawa, Canada, Aug. 29-Sept. 1
What happened: The reigning NCAA champs didn't waste much time during their foray up north. They played (and won) three games in two days, highlighted by a one-point win over Carleton University, which has won the Canadian national championship five of the last six years. That game was played in front of more than 7,000 spectators at Scotiabank Place, home of the NHL's Ottawa Senators. "That was a great environment," coach Bill Self says. "You could tell it meant a lot to our guys to win."
The more notable aspect of the trip, however, was how short-handed the Jayhawks were. Junior point guard Sherron Collins, the lone returning starter from last season's NCAA championship squad, played in just one game because he is still recovering from offseason knee surgery -- a process that is taking longer than it should because Collins has not done his part to stay in shape. In addition, a pair of KU's promising freshmen, twin forwards Marcus and Markieff Morris, didn't play at all because they had not been cleared by the NCAA. (They were declared eligible after the team returned to Lawrence.) Still, with seven newcomers in the program, Self thought it was important to give his guys the extra repetitions. "The best part of the trip was the practices," Self says. "We're still nowhere close to knowing what we're doing, but I guarantee you we'll be more prepared at the start of the practice."
Some of the new guys showed surprising scoring ability (6-5 freshman Travis Releford led the team with 14.3 points a game, though that's a bit deceiving since he scored 25 in the win over Carleton). But the most important thing to come out of the trip was evidence that the hard work put in this offseason by 6-11 sophomore center Cole Aldrich has paid off. The former McDonald's All-American only averaged 8.3 minutes last season, but he showed a glimpse of his potential with his eight-point, seven-rebound, four-block performance in Kansas' Final Four win against North Carolina. In Canada, Aldrich averaged 12 points and 11 rebounds, and he shot 12 for 13 from the foul line. "He's our most improved guy without question," Self says. "He's gotten stronger, he's improved his jump shot and he's found different ways to score. I really think the end of last season gave him confidence."
Revelation: Tyshawn Taylor did not garner a ton of hype in high school (Rivals.com ranked him 77th in the Class of '08), but the 6-3 combo guard from Jersey City's famed St. Anthony High showed some dynamic ability on the trip. He was KU's second-leading scorer (13.7 ppg) and made 59.3 percent of his shots. "Our concern with him was whether he could score, but he has a great chance to start from Day 1," Self says. "He's faster with the ball than Sherron."
Postcard moment: The Jayhawks were barely in Ottawa long enough to unpack their bags, so there wasn't much room for sightseeing on the itinerary. They did, however, present a jersey before one of their games to Jay Roberts, who lettered in basketball, football and track at KU in the early 1960's before going on to play seven years for the CFL's Ottawa Rough Riders.
Missouri: Ontario, Canada, Aug. 29-Sept. 2
What happened: Mike Anderson wanted to wait until school began to take his trip because it would allow him to take his freshman. But Missouri didn't start classes until August 25, which meant Anderson could only conduct five practices instead of the allowable 10. Like Self, however, Anderson also has seven newcomers, including five freshmen, so he felt the trip was well worthwhile. "I've always said I didn't like taking short trips because you don't get a whole lot of practice, but believe me it was beneficial," Anderson says. "We practice with a lot of intensity. When these guys come back in October, they won't be in awe."
Missouri played three games in Ontario, all against teams of low caliber. Their lopsided wins by an average margin of 35.3 points allowed Anderson to experiment with different lineups. Not surprisingly, his two top senior forwards, DeMare Carroll and Leo Lyons, led the team in scoring with 15.7 points a game. One of the freshmen, 6-2 guard Marcus Denmon, averaged 11.7 points; in one game he scored 23 points in 13 minutes. In Anderson's high-paced, "forty minutes of hell" system, a quick guard who can score in bunches is a valuable weapon.
Revelation: When a team plays as many possessions in a game as Missouri does, points are usually not hard to come by. For the system to work, however, Anderson needs a few tough, strong players who can defend and rebound as well. He believes he has one such gem in Zaire Taylor, a 6-4 transfer from Delaware who turned 22 during the trip. In the final game in Welland, Ontario, Taylor did something of everything: 15 points, five rebounds, four assists, eight steals. "It's refreshing to see a big guard like that who can defend, rebound and distribute the basketball," Anderson says. "Hopefully he has some room to grow."
Postcard moment: This trip gave Anderson his first chance to visit Niagara Falls, which he called "breathtaking." Otherwise, the players had the town of Ontario to themselves at night. Anderson hopes the bonding they did on this trip will pay off when the games begin. "Whatever they did," he says, "they did together."