College basketball: Foreign tours give college hoops teams a boost
TEMPE, Ariz. — Wisconsin's players hung out with koalas and kangaroos, learned the Haka dance, milked a cow and played a prank on former walk-on forward Aaron Moesch to reveal he would be on scholarship this season.
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"We were able to get out of this trip what we wanted to accomplish," Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said. "Guys did a really good job of maturing as time went along."
The Badgers weren't the only team to spend time abroad this summer.
College basketball programs spanned the globe, taking advantage of an NCAA rule that allows teams to make an international trip once every four years.
Wisconsin spent 12 days in New Zealand and Australia. Oklahoma took a similar trip, while Texas and TCU also went to Australia.
Alabama played three games in Montreal and Ottawa. Arizona State went to Rome and Barcelona, two popular destinations for foreign trips. Penn State and Rhode Island went to the Bahamas, and Purdue to Taipei, where the Boilermakers represented the United States in the World University Games.
Vanderbilt went to the Virgin Islands, the College of Charleston to Ireland, New Orleans to Costa Rica and Panama. And that's just a sampling.
Teams have been making international trips for years, but there was an uptick in 2010 after incoming freshman were cleared to practice and join teams on trips after getting through the NCAA clearinghouse and completing summer school classes.
Programs get 10 days of practice with the trips, gaining an invaluable head start to the season with the extra court time, competition and off-the-court bonding.
When Wisconsin took its last trip (to Canada), the Badgers had a young team and went on to reach the first of two straight Final Fours. Louisville reached the Final Four in 2012 after going to the Bahamas the previous summer.
Coaches get to evaluate new players in competition, tinker with lineups and implement their systems in game situations before other teams. The players build chemistry with each other and their coaches, get valuable early practice time and a feel for what their teammates can do.
"The repetitions that we get in practice, everything we talk about and learn on the trip, will have carry over," said Arizona coach Sean Miller, whose team played in Barcelona and Valencia, Spain. "When we practice again after the trip, we can almost pick up where we left off as opposed to reinventing something. Maybe some things right now that we think are true, really aren't. But that's the value of a trip like this — you learn a lot about what you have."
One anomaly among the positive experiences — Arizona, Tulane, Oregon State and Clemson were in Barcelona this summer when a terror attack struck the city. A van drove up on a sidewalk in Las Ramblas promenade and crashed into scores of people, killing 13. Arizona, Oregon State and Clemson were all staying in the same hotel near the attack, while Tulane was in a different part of the city.
No one in the traveling parties was injured, but Oregon State's players witnessed the aftermath from their windows while preparing to go to dinner.
"People, mad scramble, car-van driving through, literally looking out of our window," Oregon State coach Wayne Tinkle said in a video posted on Twitter from the hotel. "We won't show you pictures, but some horrific sights, several fatalities within eyesight of our hotel room."
Most teams, though, return from foreign trips with lasting memories.
College of Charleston players got to kiss the Blarney Stone and see the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland. Tennessee visited the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre.
Arizona State went to the Vatican, Pantheon and the Colosseum during its trip.
"When we went through the Colosseum, it was so surreal," Arizona State senior guard Kodi Justice said. "We couldn't imagine what it looked like and tried to picture when they were fighting and what they went through. It was mind blowing to see some of the things on the tour and definitely one of the highlights of the trip."
Players and coaches across the country have the same feeling — along with a jumpstart on the season.