More teams from a greater variety of college sports are taking the plunge. But unless it’s an oddity like the Michigan football squad practicing in Rome this past April, what most attracts our attention are basketball contingents that travel abroad in August to compete and sight-see, this year Clemson’s men and both Duke basketball programs among them.
The little-remarked trips, blending competition with cultural enrichment, might come closest to striking the athletic/educational balance supposedly at the heart of NCAA sports.
Teams are allowed to visit another country only once every four years. Western Europe, Canada and the Caribbean are favorite destinations. Until this year, basketball was the only sport that could bring freshmen along for the ride. Squads get an extra 10 days to practice, much like football teams prior to a bowl game, then face a few opponents of varying acuity in the country of their choice.
“The basketball’s fine, but to me it’s more the life experience and the bonding,” Clemson’s Brad Brownell said in advance of a 10-day trip to Spain next month. Brownell arranged for a Clemson professor to accompany this year’s group to further appreciation of the culture and history of their surroundings.
“The games are important, everyone wants to get better and obviously we want to win them,” agrees Justin Bauman, director of basketball operations for the Wake Forest men’s program, which went to the Bahamas last August. “But then in the same sense they don’t count, so the pressure’s not there.”
Wake had lost several veterans. With six new players, and several modestly used sophomores returning, including big man John Collins, Danny Manning and staff journeyed to Nassau and Paradise Island. “We had a new roster and it was like, hey, we need experience,” recalls Bauman. “We learned so much about each other because we were all so young. I think that definitely propelled us in getting to the NCAA tournament this year.”
Mike Krzyzewski articulated similar goals in announcing Duke was headed to the Dominican Republic to face that country’s National Team between Aug. 17 and 24. Facing huge roster turnover, and the arrival of almost as many basketball naifs as populated the NBA lottery, the Blue Devils coach said he wanted his freshmen “to know what it is to play against good competition,” his holdover reserves to learn to “assert themselves,” and to afford “a chance to be a leader” to senior Grayson Allen. “It’s more of a realistic look at who you are in August,” said Krzyzewski, a big believer in scouting his own team, “and maybe that will help us train better once we start in late September, start practice.”
There’s persuasive evidence a summer trip abroad can benefit a basketball team the following season – Wake’s NCAA berth in 2017 was its first since 2010. Clemson went to France during the summer of 2013, and came back to post 23 wins, most of Brownell’s seven-year tenure. Duke’s women traveled to France and Italy in August 2012 and the next season achieved a 33-3 record, best in a decade under Joanne P. McCallie.
“It’s definitely great incorporating freshmen into the fold,” Kate Senger, director of basketball operations for the female Blue Devils, says of an overseas trip. “They get a crash course in how we travel, what we do and how we do it, and then the basketball aspect.”
We can only wonder if Mark Gottfried might still be N.C. State head coach had his ’17 team, which never jelled, followed through on a trip to Italy last summer, rather than cancel in the face of a low-level travel alert for Europe.“It was done with an abundance of caution,” senior associate athletic director Chris Boyer told USA Today.
Overseas travel is hardly a panacea, however. Virginia went to Spain last summer (travel alert notwithstanding) after losing three of its top four scorers, with a freshman trio figuring to gain significant minutes. But on the heels of three straight first- or second-place ACC finishes, with at least 29 wins each time, the Cavaliers dropped to 23-11 and a tie for fifth place in 2017. Duke’s men, replacing three mainstays, went to China and Dubai during August 2011 and slid to five fewer wins and a quick ouster against Lehigh in their 2012 NCAA opener.
Visits to alien environs have obvious benefits besides promoting a team’s oncourt prospects and camaraderie. An increasing trend at American universities is study abroad, often with support from the school. This is obviously not possible for athletes unless they interrupt their playing careers. “Our kids can’t do that a whole lot because of their status and their expectations as student-athletes,” Duke’s Senger says, “so I think (a summer trip) really gives them an opportunity to engage in a different culture, and see some of the more amazing sites in the world they might not get to experience otherwise.”
Foreign tours also may be sparked or shaped by more obscure motivations, according to Nels Hawkinson, executive director of Basketball Travelers, a company based in Washington state. This August, Basketball Travelers is handling 48 team tours, as well as arranging suitable game opponents. Hawkinson, in the business for 32 years, says coaches sometimes pick destinations based on what food or weather they like, where they want to recruit, or to visit the home country of an international student on their roster. “Some do it because they have their anniversary, they were married there, they played there,” he admits. Schools usually pay for the spouse of a head coach, as well as a trainer, team doctor and school media staff.
Most foreign trips incorporate a service element – visiting American troops, hosting clinics for disadvantaged children. Such activities clearly enhance the educational experience. “Our guys are thinking – Bahamas, nice waters, fun hotels,” notes Wake’s Bauman. “And then you drive about five blocks from the hotel and it’s like, damn, these people can’t even afford to have a front door on their house. Totally different ballgame.”
Too bad it takes a trip of hundreds or thousands of miles at a cost of about $5,000 per head for a travel party of at least 25 to recognize conditions that usually exist at the edge of sight in most American communities.
Still, enlightenment is where you find it. Jeff Walz and his Louisville women’s squad had their eyes opened on a journey last summer to Cuba. “It just really made a lot of our players appreciate the opportunities that we have here,” Walz says. That didn’t keep the Cardinals from succumbing to the charms of Havana and a culture off-limits to most Americans for more than a half-century. “I thought our players really enjoyed, and fully dove into the experience, because there weren’t all these distractions,” Walz observes. Most attractive from a coach’s perspective, limited cellphone coverage largely kept players mentally engaged in the present moment instead.
Brownell likewise appreciated circumscribed cell service at a small, rural French hotel where Clemson stayed for two days. Five years later he’s not sure exactly what the Tigers’ Spanish itinerary will be, including whether or not they’ll see a bullfight. Referring to the Festival of San Fermin, which famously takes over the streets of Pamplona, the burly Brownell adds, “I just hope we don’t have to run with the bulls. I’m not that fast.”