TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — While the University of Alabama football team prepares for the start of fall camp on Aug. 3, the men’s basketball team returned to the court this week.
The Crimson Tide held the first of 10 practices Sunday in preparation for their upcoming trip to Canada, where Alabama will play three games in Montreal and Ottawa from Aug. 4-11.
“Those practices will be very important for us, to look at different combinations,” coach Avery Johnson said. “Do we want to play big? Do we want to play small? Who’s the primary ball handler? At certain times do we want to have multiple ball-handlers?
“We feel like we’re going to have a lot of versatility and flexibility and we want that to carry over to our games in Canada.”
Having added a stellar recruiting class, Alabama has five true freshmen on the roster, in addition to last year’s transfer, forward/center Daniel Giddens from Ohio State. They’re all trying to find their niche, and barely know one another, much less guard/forward Tevin Mack, who just transferred from Texas and must sit out the 2016-17 season.
That’s a lot of new faces, and a lot of players who are trying to figure each other out.
“I’m looking forward to that increased practice time,” said Johnson, who plans to tinker with different lineups, different rotations and mix up the defense.
You’d like to think that this is what the NCAA had in mind when it started allowing teams to go on foreign trips every four years. Alabama is hardly unique in taking advantage.
“I think the whole concept of the foreign trip is one of the great rules the NCAA has,” said Auburn coach Bruce Pearl, who is about to take the Tigers to Italy. “Since , when Stanford University played in the Kirin World Games in Japan and was able to take that trip, pretty much every four years I’ve gone somewhere with a basketball team.
“The experiences those young men have are life changing.”
It also doesn’t necessarily take something like Stanford facing Harvard in Shanghai, China last year, either, or LSU going all the way to Australia in 2015.
Last year both Arkansas and Georgia visited Spain. Like Mississippi State, Missouri went to Italy to try and help five freshmen get a head start on their careers (coach Kim Anderson still didn’t make it through the season).
South Carolina went to Costa Rica. At the time, the Gamecocks certainly didn’t look like a team that would make a Final Four run, playing two games against that country’s national team with just seven scholarship players.
But it gave Frank Martin an opportunity to experiment, which obviously paid off in a big way.
“I thought the practices were really, really beneficial,” Martin said. “Earlier in the year we were way ahead of where we’d been in years past. I thought we were a week to 10 days ahead. Now once you get to Christmas break it all evens out a little bit.”
Kentucky has also used international trips to its advantage. After losing five first-round draft picks from its 2010 SEC championship team it went to Canada before the start of the subsequent season and made it all the way to the Final Four.
In 2014, the Wildcats went to the Bahamas and faced the national teams of the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, plus the French pro club Champagne Chalons-Reims Basket — games that could be watched on television. Kentucky won its first 38 games that season before losing to Wisconsin in the Final Four.
While the trip gave Kentucky a lot of exposure both domestically and internationally, John Calipari also tested out what was essentially a platoon system that became a calling card of that team.
LSU coach Will Wade went through something similar when he went on an international trip with VCU to Spain last year. He went in thinking his team was going to be more guard-based that season, but once it actually played together the coaching staff realized that the offense would be led by the bigger players.
Additionally, the trip helped in a way that the SEC especially hopes its teams will benefit this year, getting off to a good start against non-conference competition. Those early games play a huge part in establishing each league’s reputation every season, which can be crucial in securing bids for the NCAA Tournament.
“At VCU we had an issue in those early-season tournaments,” Wade said. “We’d gone like 1-2 for eight straight years. When we went 2-1 at a tournament in the Bahamas I think part of that was we were a little bit ahead from the foreign trips.”
From coaches trying to build reputations with international contacts for recruiting, to players just building some camaraderie and getting a chance to see a different part of the world, every coach will tell you that there are a lot of pluses all the way around.
“The players like the trip,” summarized Martin. “The coaches enjoy the practices.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated when Alabama returned to the basketball court. SEC Country regrets the error.