Fall trips more about practice than fun
Fall trips are about the extra practice time, not the games and rarely about the sightseeing.
There simply isn't enough time for the latter, and the former is usually not too much of a challenge.
Florida coach Billy Donovan couldn't wait for the practices. He got eight of the allowed 10 practices in before the trip to Nassau, Bahamas, had to be canceled Wednesday due to Hurricane Frances.
The Gators were supposed to play a few "club teams" from the area over Labor Day weekend. The best competition, though, was in Gainesville the past two weeks.
Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon had talked to Donovan about doing the same trip and playing each other's team in scrimmages, but the NCAA nixed that idea, saying foreign trips have to be against -- you guessed it -- foreign teams.
So, Dixon went ahead with his own travel agent (himself) and got a bus for the team to drive to Toronto for Labor Day weekend with a sightseeing stop and dinner at Niagara Falls along the way.
The NCAA got rid of the October trips starting in 2005. Administrators at member schools didn't see the need for teams to squeeze in a trip in the days before practice to give teams a head start on the season. When a team takes a trip, they get 10 days of practice. Taking a trip after school starts allows teams to take their newcomers. Trips in the spring or in the summer before the start of school means the newcomers stay home.
Maryland wrapped up a trip to Italy. Rhode Island was just in the Dominican Republic, and West Virginia was in The Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Germany where Mountaineers coach John Beilein said they learned to play faster with a 24-second clock. He said that's what his team will do in the fall, too.
"Don't forget about us because we'll be better,'' Beilein said of his team's 17-14 record.
Taking a summer trip is more of a relaxing experience. That's not the case in a jam-packed weekend trip to Europe, the Caribbean, Latin America or even Canada.
Kentucky coach Tubby Smith canceled his team's quick trip to Cancun, Mexico, for the first few days of October because he feared the season would become too long and too draining on a team that will rely on younger players.
But that's not going to deter Xavier (Bahamas), Virginia (Canada), South Carolina (Canada), Pacific (Canada), Lehigh (Barbados) and possibly Seton Hall (Costa Rica is the tentative plan) from going on trips right before practice begins on Oct. 16. Duke trailblazed the idea of an October pre-practice trip in 2002.
Georgia is taking a trip to Canada after practice starts Oct. 27-31. Connecticut is going to England Thanksgiving week Nov. 21-27 after the season begins.
The new rule won't get rid of Labor Day trips since the legislation clearly states that teams can't go on foreign excursions within 30 days of the start of the season. So, the trips taken by Pittsburgh (Canada), Kansas (Canada), Florida (Bahamas), UNLV (Canada), Southeast Missouri (Canada), South Alabama (Costa Rica) and Portland State (Costa Rica) would be allowed in 2005, too.
The NCAA won't allow teams to miss school days on trips during the academic year, and that's why teams have worked either Labor Day weekend or fall breaks. Not every school has a fall break, and that's another reason why the NCAA wanted to get rid of the loophole (unfair advantage).
The approach to the trips is simple: get in the 10 practice days, some basic plans for the season and maybe start to develop a depth chart.
Here's a look at what four teams hoped to accomplish in advance of the Labor Day trips, or at least with the practices, in Florida's case:
2003-04: 20-11, 9-7 second SEC East, lost to Manhattan in NCAA first round
The Gators didn't use the final two days of allowable practices once the announcement was made that the trip was canceled. Florida will petition the NCAA to let the Gators take another trip next season since the trip was canceled due to events out of their control.
"Obviously our players and staff are extremely disappointed that we won't be able to go this weekend," Donovan said in a statement released by the school. "They've worked very hard over the past week and were certainly looking forward to the reward of the trip. It's very unfortunate but the safety of our players comes first and foremost. We certainly will keep our thoughts and prayers with the people of the Bahamas as they brace for Hurricane Frances."
The Gators were scheduled to leave Friday for two games Saturday and one on Sunday. Florida wouldn't have been able to use forward Chris Richard on the trip because severe tendonitis forced him to have patella tendon surgery. Donovan said Richard hasn't been cleared to play yet. Like Dixon and Self, Donovan wanted to see his newcomers more than anyone else, especially Corey Brewer, Al Horford and Joakim Noah.
"Corey is as good an athlete as we've had,'' Donovan said of the 6-8 freshman. "Our young kids attitude has been great. Their work ethic is really, really good. All of them are handling this well, listening and picking things up.''
The 6-11 Noah and 6-8 Horford got added looks in practice with Richard out.
"Noah isn't as strong so he'll have to use his feet to defend in the post, but he's got great energy and plays with great emotion,'' Donovan said. "All of the freshmen are doing a good job right now (other freshmen on the roster include Taurean Green, Cornelius Ingram and Jack Berry).''
Donovan got a longer look at sophomores Mohamed Abukar (2.7 ppg) and Lee Humphrey (3.8 ppg) in practice. Both players will be expected to play even more minutes then a year ago.
But the big four on this unit in terms of experience are senior David Lee (13.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg) and juniors Anthony Roberson (17.9 ppg, 3.6 apg), Matt Walsh (15.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg) and Adrian Moss (6.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg). All four are as focused as ever to lead the Gators this season.
"Lee trimmed down,'' Donovan said. "He's at his best physically. He's not too bulky. He's not going to be a power, but more of a guy who can run out on the post. Matt Walsh looks as good physically as he has. He hasn't added much size, but he's stronger and his legs and midsection look leaner and stronger. Anthony Roberson was back in Saginaw (Mich.) all summer but he looks really good.''
Donovan said the goal of the practices was to come up with another wing, someone like Brewer or if they go smaller that could mean Humphrey or even Abukar at power forward.
The Gators are down to 11 scholarship players after Rashid Al-Kaleem left (destination unknown) and Ryan Appleby transferred to Washington.
2003-04: 31-5, 13-3 in the Big East, Sweet 16 lost to Oklahoma State in East Rutherford region
Dixon started practicing his team Thursday, but his three newcomers -- freshmen guards Ronald Ramon and Keith Benjamin and JC forward John DeGroat -- weren't allowed until school starts Monday. The newcomers will get in practice next week before the team leaves for the Labor Day weekend. But that means Pittsburgh won't get in all 10 of the practices.
The Panthers are set with the big three for the season in point guard Carl Krauser (15.4 ppg, 4.5 apg) and forwards Chris Taft (10.9 ppg, 7.5 rpg) and Chevy Troutman (9.8 ppg, 7.5 rpg). But Dixon needs to see who will emerge as the fourth and fifth starters and wants to start getting a pecking order in his bench. Getting a serious look at the three newcomers -- in practice -- is critical too. But the NCAA counts the foreign exhibition games as part of the redshirt process. That means if Dixon is considering redshirting any of the three newcomers then he won't play them in Toronto. Benjamin has had a nagging ankle injury that could prevent him from being used.
Dixon said he's especially interested to see how three players -- last year's redshirt Dante Milligan and expected contributors Levon Kendall and Antonio Graves -- handle more responsibility. The Panthers are trying to replace two longtime veterans of their Sweet 16 runs in Jaron Brown (11.7 ppg, 5.4 rpg) and Julius Page (11 ppg). Leadership will fall to Krauser, Troutman and Taft. But they still need to divvy up defensive responsibilities to Brown's and Page's replacements.
2003-04: 24-9, 12-4 in Big 12, lost to Georgia Tech in the Elite Eight in St. Louis Region
Kansas coach Bill Self has four starters set: Wayne Simien, Keith Langford, Aaron Miles and J.R. Giddens. The question for practice this week and next before the trip to British Columbia Labor Day weekend is, who will be the fifth?
The spot won't be decided on this trip, but a depth chart could be formed. The candidates are all different.
"It's wide open,'' Self said. "It could be Christian Moody, (freshmen) C.J. Giles, Sasha Kaun or Darnell Jackson.''
Self said any number of them, and even returnee Moulaye Niang, could find themselves next to Simien. Getting a comfort level working next to Simien is the most important part of the practices.
Self said he considers the seldom-used 6-foot-8 Moody more of a perimeter-facing four-man if the Jayhawks want to go smaller. The 6-8 Jackson is more of a prototypical power player. The 6-10 Giles is a runner, jumper and shot blocker. The 6-11 Kaun is probably the one true center in the bunch.
Simien is in the best shape of his career. Giddens and Langford, both coming off injuries (a knee for Langford and a foot for Giddens), should be able to play on the trip. Miles will get needed rest from freshman Russell Robinson as a backup point.
"What I hope to get out of this is a depth chart,'' Self said. "It's like spring football for us. We want to feel like we'll be weeks ahead of schedule.''
One omission will be Jeff Hawkins. The 5-11 junior guard won't make the trip. He was apparently not towing the party line and was disciplined by Self. The overall depth on the team means Self doesn't have to cater to any bad attitudes this season and he made this painfully clear to Hawkins.
"The message to the young guys was if you're screwing around we don't have to keep you around,'' Self said.
The overall attitude has been tremendous, according to Self.
"This is the most excited I've ever been (for a season),'' Self said of the likely preseason top three Jayhawks.
2003-04: 18-13, 7-7 4th in MWC, lost to Boise State in first round of postseason NIT
New coach Lon Kruger has a different approach then the other three coaches. He has to get to know his team this week and next before going to British Columbia over Labor Day weekend.
Coaches do relish taking summer trips with a new team so they can get a head start before October practice begins.
"The main thing is for us to get familiar with each other and for the players to understand our expectations and to establish an identity,'' Kruger said. "What that will be for us is to pressure the ball defensively, push it offensively.''
Kruger has three locks in senior point guard Jerel Blassingame (11.2 ppg, 6.6 apg) and senior wings Romel Beck (14.2 ppg) and Odartey Blankson (17.6 ppg, 10.2 rpg). Blankson declared for the NBA draft but quickly withdrew once it was apparent he wasn't going to get a sniff from even the Chicago pre-draft camp.
"We don't have a lot of size,'' Kruger said.
Kruger will be watching closely Louis Amundson (4.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg) and JC transfers -- Wilbur Williams and Joel Anthony, who can't practice until Monday when school starts.
"Finding a four and five man and combinations with all of them will be what we need to get out of this,'' Kruger said. "I've never done a trip like this in September before.''
Few had before 2002. None will take them in October, beginning in 2005. But the Labor Day trips should stick around as long as coaches find them productive.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His Weekly Word on college basketball is updated Fridays throughout the year and will return Sept. 10.
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