Heading Overseas Helps Hoops Teams

DePaul's basketball team spent 10 days touring France, playing a few games, taking in the sights, even finishing a school course on university namesake Saint Vincent de Paul by retracing his footsteps.

Fun, hoops and a little learning - summer trips don't get much better than that.

"It was a great way to learn and the basketball, they love to play basketball, so that was a nice diversion,'' DePaul coach Oliver Purnell said. "At the same time, they had enough time off that they could hang out at the city and play at the beach. In terms of bonding and relationship building, I thought it was a real nice trip.''

The memorable trip also served another purpose. It gave the Blue Demons, like more a dozen other teams that played overseas during the summer, a big head start on the upcoming season.

The NCAA allows teams to take overseas trips once every four year. They are allowed to practice up to 10 days before leaving and can play as many as 10 games, though most teams play about half that. The trips have to take place at least 30 days after the championship game of the previous season and 30 days before the start of practice for the next season.

Most teams raise money for the trips through fundraisers.

By taking their teams overseas, coaches get an early look at how their team will react in game situations, usually against professional teams from other counties. They also get a chance to experiment with lineups and schemes they might not have time to tinker with once the season starts.

The players get a head start on forming bonds with each other and their coaches, and understanding the team's system. There's even a little culture, too.

The trips are, in most cases, beneficial in almost every aspect.

"It allows your incoming players a tremendous opportunity to get their feet wet and get adjusted to the intensity and physicality of college basketball long before your first practice in October,'' said Creighton coach Greg McDermott, whose team played four games in the Bahamas in August.

"Also, there's what it does for your team chemistry. Your players are forced to spend a lot of time together over a five- or six-day period finding things to do with each other. It's incredible for our chemistry.''

Chemistry could be the biggest advantage, particularly since the NCAA recently started allowing incoming players to go on the trips.

For McDermott's team, the players' cellphones didn't work, so they had to spend time talking with each other, even if most of it was spent at the pool or the beach.

DePaul's players, instead of pairing off as they normally would, did everything together as they toured Versailles, Nice and Monaco, among other stops.

Some teams, as Georgetown found out, even encounter adversity.

While on a trip to China, the Hoyas were involved in an ugly incident, with fists, chairs and water bottles flying during an all-out brawl with a Chinese team at a game in Beijing. Footage of the "global incident,'' as coach John Thompson III called it, played everywhere from YouTube to national TV news, but it may have actually had a side benefit.

"It definitely strengthened us. It definitely brought us a lot closer,'' Hoyas senior guard Jason Clark said. "Having five new players and players leave from last year, we didn't know what to expect. Now we know that when we do go through things - and you do go through things in life like that - that everybody has each other's back and we're a solid-knit group.''

The road trips also can be a good early evaluation tool.

Purnell has seven new players on his team, so the tour through France was a chance to get to know his younger players and for them to get a hands-on experience in his system.

Duke will have to rely on several younger players with Kyrie Irving, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler gone, and a trip to China gave coach Mike Krzyzewski an early look at what they can do under pressure.

Creighton returns just five players from last season and will have four freshmen in the rotation, so the run through the Bahamas was a huge jump start.

Iowa State will have four Division I transfers on the roster this season and even though the Cyclones didn't exactly face the toughest of competition in a four-game stop in Italy, it gave coach Fred Hoiberg an early chance to integrate his new players into the system.

"Those guys, even though they were in our system last year and learned a lot, most of the time in practice they were running and executing the other team's plays,'' Hoiberg said. "To go out there and work together with the guys that were coming back...that was very important and has definitely given us a leg up. It was a perfect year for us to take this trip.''

These foreign tours aren't all about hoops.

Stanford's players, in addition to playing six games in 11 days in Spain, spent time together visiting the Royal Palace in Madrid, famous Las Ramblas Street in Barcelona and eating traditional Spanish food such as Paella for dinner.

DePaul's players started a course on Saint Vincent de Paul back in Illinois and continued it in France with a professor from the university who took them to places of significance in the 17th century Catholic priest's life, including the church where he was buried. Iowa State's players got to visit the Coliseum in Rome and the Vatican, among other sites.

Villanova's players got to see the Eiffel Tower, the Anne Frank museum home and the Mona Lisa during a trip through France, Luxembourg and The Netherlands. The Wildcats even went on a boat tour through the canals of Amsterdam and had an upscale dinner together with the whole place to themselves.

"It was probably a type of dinner you would go to on a date. It was almost romantic,'' coach Jay Wright said. "But for all of us to be in that setting, it was very classy. I was very impressed with the guys' maturity, the relationships that were built.''

It's not all fun or, in some cases, close to being romantic.

Some of the teams that play overseas are thrown into tough circumstances on the court, playing in unfamiliar places against seasoned professional teams.

Villanova played against professional teams from Israel, Georgia and The Netherlands, while the Hoyas literally had to defend themselves in a hostile environment halfway around the world.

Stanford didn't win a single game during its 11-day trip through Spain while playing against six top professional teams from the ACB League - Real Madrid and FC Barcelona Regal among them - but took a lot away from the tests.

"I thought it was important to really challenge ourselves,'' Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins said. "We discussed the benefits of playing such high-level opponents as opposed to maybe playing at another level down or so. We all agreed for our group, at our stage of development, it was really good to face some teams that were really challenging and put us in position to where we had to play great in order to win.''

These before-the-preseason trips certainly give teams an advantage heading into the season.

Many of the teams that go overseas together get off to quick starts, and for some it carries the entire way through.

Last season, a Kentucky team that lost five first-round NBA picks made it to the Final Four after taking a tour of Canada during the summer. Michigan, coming off a lackluster 2009-10 season, used a summer trip to Belgium to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament last season.

These trips don't always turn into more wins, but they certainly don't hurt.

"You're just further ahead,'' Purnell said. "Most of the time you get off to a pretty good start because you are further ahead. Most of the other teams you're going to play didn't go on a foreign tour or have 19 days of practice in August, which isn't that far removed from the season. It's a big advantage.''

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