Questions get answered abroad
Kansas State coach Jim Wooldridge couldn't imagine taking a foreign trip without his new players. He doesn't understand why a coach would opt to take a trip in the summer or late spring with players who won't be on the team in the upcoming season.
"It doesn't make any sense to me," Wooldridge said of the offseason trips that prevent teams from taking newcomers arriving for the upcoming season.
Taking a fall trip offered more clarity for Wooldridge and other coaches. Kansas State (to Vancouver), Virginia (Montreal) and Charlotte (Toronto) all ventured to Canada last weekend (with South Carolina on a similar trip this weekend). Xavier went the island route, heading to Nassau, Bahamas, over the same Columbus Day holiday weekend.
These types of trips will end after this season after the NCAA passed legislation that a team can't take a trip in the 30 days before the start of practice on Oct. 16. That doesn't preclude a team from taking a trip over Labor Day like Iowa State, UNLV, Kansas and Pittsburgh did last month -- the teams just can't take their trips over scheduled school days.
All four of the coaches who just returned -- Wooldridge, Virginia's Pete Gillen, Charlotte's Bobby Lutz and Xavier's Sean Miller -- would like to see the legislation revoked. They all love the 10 practices that are allowed prior to the trip. They'll have to manage their teams so they don't get worn down, but each coach came out of the weekend knowing more about his team, getting answers to some questions, and hoping his team can springboard off of the practices and the trip.
Here's what they discovered on the road:
What had to be answered? The Wildcats needed some confidence. They had to start believing they could be a team that could matter in the Big 12. Kansas State went on the trip to find out about itself. It discovered that it could have a chance. "We're very close to getting over that line," Wooldridge said. That line Wooldridge speaks of is the division in the Big 12 from the top six to the bottom six teams. Kansas, Oklahoma State, Texas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Missouri have dominated that top group. Iowa State and Colorado have taken turns in the upper tier (CU finished ahead of Tech, Missouri and Iowa State last season). Kansas State, Nebraska, Texas A&M and Baylor picked up the bottom. The Wildcats went 3-1 on their trip to western Canada. Do the results really matter? Not necessarily, but the schedule for the Wildcats is home heavy with only one road game -- at Wyoming -- before the Big 12. "We want to get into that next group [moving into the middle that pushes the top six]," Wooldridge said. "Missouri, Colorado and Iowa State lost a lot from a year ago so it's there in front of us to do that. We built a heavy, heavy, heavy home schedule to give ourselves momentum going into the Big 12."
Who stood out? Kansas State found out it will be more athletic than it has been in the past. The Wildcats have the inside-out combination they needed with forward Jeremiah Massey (19.7 ppg in four games on the trip) and sophomore JC transfer guard Fred Peete (12.8 ppg, 13 total assists and only three turnovers). "Fred is going to make a lot of plays for us," Wooldridge said. "He's going to score and is a real tough kid, both mentally and physically. He's going to be a big-time playmaker for us. The Wildcats are young with sophomore Cartier Martin (11.5 ppg on the trip) and sophomore center Tyler Hughes (5.5 rpg).
What does it all mean? The Wildcats shot only 30.2 percent on 3s, a stat that Wooldridge thinks won't be indicative of the season, although he did say he didn't think this team would be launching a ton of 3s. He said this team will be more of a driving, post-up team and shooting 53 percent overall and outrebounding the Canadian teams by seven is a positive step. Will the Wildcats be able to move up in the standings? The Big 12 is too deep to know if this trip is a strong indicator. "We were [within] a basket or two of being 8-8 instead of 6-10 (in the Big 12)," Wooldridge said. "Yet we weren't good enough to do that."
What had to be answered? The Cavaliers had to see if Devin Smith, who had a back procedure in the offseason, could handle playing three games in a row. He handled himself fine, scoring 19 points in one game and 13 in another. "We were really happy he was able to play and had no pain at all," Gillen said. "We'll still be cautious with him." Gillen said he wouldn't let Smith do drills like taking charges and two-on-one rebounding drills so he doesn't unnecessarily injure himself during practice. "He had no pain, no stiffness but just now has to get in shape. The poor kid hasn't been healthy since we got him." Smith was a JC transfer, coming to Virginia after his freshman season. But nagging injuries have dogged him throughout his career. Still, Gillen said Smith is still the team's leader and he proved it again on the trip. "Kids respect him," Gillen said. "He's a tough kid and they're a little bit afraid of him."
Who stood out? All three freshmen were a hit. Guard Sean Singletary closed the trip with 16 points, five assists and five rebounds in the final game. Forward Adrian Joseph added nine in the same game and 12 in the second game. Forward Tunji Soroye chipped in 10 points in the first game. Gillen needs the freshmen to contribute this season. He has a stable group with sophomore guards J.R. Reynolds and T.J. Bannister, senior forward Elton Brown, sophomore forward Gary Forbes and the aforementioned senior Smith. But getting one of the three freshmen to be a solid role player is a must. Soroye could help the most since he's an inside defensive threat, but Gillen said he's still very raw. "He's going to be a good player down the road," Gillen said. "He'll help us block shots, and get out and run." Sophomore forward Donte Minter went on the trip but didn't play with an injured knee.
What does it all mean? Gillen sees this bunch as a team that could make an NCAA Tournament bid run. But it's going to take time to develop. The Cavaliers have to make the NCAAs for Gillen to feel secure about his job status. But the problem is they're playing in the ACC and it's going to be incredibly difficult to finish above seventh. Virginia needed to find out about Smith's health and its freshmen. They all got high marks. But this trip won't necessarily push the Cavs down the path toward a bid. It's a first baby step along the way.
What had to be answered? Lutz had to find out if he had another point guard with Mitchell Baldwin out with a broken right hand. The 49ers went with freshman Leemire Goldwire a bit more than freshman Jerrell Lewis. Lutz said he felt Goldwire was more comfortable at the position. Goldwire committed four turnovers to Lewis' five in the three games. He had one 20-point outing, but also had a 3-for-10 (1-for-6 on 3s) game. Neither would be expected to score, but rather be a distributor off the bench. Baldwin is due back by the time the 49ers start the season.
Who stood out? Junior college transfer forward E.J. Drayton. Lutz raved about Drayton during the practices before the trek to Toronto. Drayton will demand playing time, and if he doesn't start, then he should be the first player off the bench. Drayton scored 18 points off the bench in the first game, 11 in the second and six in the third. So, he did wilt over three days, but he still left an impression. "He's playing with such great confidence," Lutz said. "We've got to find him minutes." Lutz could put Drayton in place or next to center Martin Iti and forward Curtis Withers at any point during a game. Iti still got in foul trouble (four fouls in two games, three in another). Withers put up 24 points in two of the three games. Brendan Plavich, a 3-point specialist, made 20 3s in three games. Eddie Basden averaged 16 points and nine boards during the trip.
What does it all mean? Charlotte remains one of the favorites in Conference USA. This team should be a tough out for anyone home or road. This trip will only help them, especially in giving Drayton plenty of confidence that he can contribute. "I'm really pleased," Lutz said. "This team has a chance to be pretty good."
What had to be answered? The Musketeers were without suspended point guard Dedrick Finn and Nigerian native Churchill Odia (for visa issues). That meant the Musketeers had to find out if they had a backup point guard. They found one in freshman Dupree Lucas. Miller said Lucas handled the position, playing more minutes then freshman Stanley Burrell. Lucas had six assists and only one turnover in a game against a team called The Wreckers in the Bahamas. Burrell, who outscored Lucas 12 to 7, had three assists and four turnovers. Odia, who could start at one of the guard spots, did get to practice for the 10 days prior to the trip. Miller said Finn would return at the end of the month, assuming he continues to do his schoolwork and behave according to the team rules off the court.
Who stood out? Brian Thornton. The Vanderbilt transfer didn't practice last season because of nagging leg injuries. The 6-8 Thornton scored 13 points and grabbed nine boards in each of the two games of the trip. The Musketeers had to find out about Thornton. They discovered that he's the same player that averaged 11 points and five boards a game in the SEC. "He's going to be a legit player for us," Miller said. "He's a very smart player. He makes free throws and knows how to play. We feel really good about him."
What does it all mean? Miller needed the 10 practices and the trip to get accustomed to being a head coach after serving as Thad Matta's assistant before Matta left for Ohio State. Miller got used to hearing his own voice as the lead voice. He has the talent, especially with his newcomers, to challenge George Washington in the A-10 West and get back to the NCAA Tournament. This team isn't as good as the one that went to the Elite Eight, although that team wasn't very good in January. This trip definitely will help the Musketeers stay on course toward another bid, assuming Finn gets his act together before the first game.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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