Weekend trips can be more hassle than help
The spirit of the NCAA's foreign tour rule is for the trip to be educational. The idea is to take players to a foreign land, play some hoops and get some culture.
When Duke went to London in 2002 over Midnight Madness weekend, though, the byproduct of the trip was that the Blue Devils, by rule, were allowed to begin practicing 10 days before everyone else. A few conferences, noting that not all schools have a fall break like Duke's that enabled the trip at that time, were annoyed enough to change the rule such that trips are now prohibited within 30 days of the first day of practice (this year, that's Oct. 13).
Hence, the Labor Day trip was born.
The playing field still isn't completely level, as schools must be in session for teams to take their newcomers (and the players can't miss a day of school) and a number of schools -- like Washington, Ohio State, Cincinnati, Oregon and Ohio -- are on quarter systems and don't start classes until after Labor Day. The bigger question, though, is what these programs actually get out of these weekend jaunts.
Florida got a little bit out of its recent trip to Niagara Falls. The main purposes were to do some bonding as a team and get plenty of reps for the freshmen in the practices leading up to the trip and the two games in Canada. Still, if schools could travel in the summer with their incoming freshmen, many likely would dump the quick Labor Day trips that are becoming commonplace for extended tours overseas.
That was Arizona's plan. Coach Lute Olson originally had an itinerary picked out for a trip to Italy that included a private tour of the Vatican. Olson was banking on a proposal passing in 2004 that would have allowed qualified freshmen who were enrolled in summer school to then go on a trip in August.
The MAAC originally proposed the idea because freshmen who don't get to go on a summer trip might never have a chance to go, since a team can go only once every four years. The proposal, though, was defeated, so instead of heading to Europe this summer, the Wildcats went to Vancouver last weekend.
Erik Christianson, a spokesperson for the NCAA, said, "The concern among NCAA members is the move to allow prospects to receive athletics financial aid in the summer before enrollment was adopted to let prospects make progress academically. Proposals to open up the summer to more athletic activities have been met with resistance by NCAA members because more athletic commitment would take away from the academic purpose of getting them on campus in the summer before the fall term."
This was the first quick trip for Olson's program, and he feels like his players are getting shortchanged.
"I think it's unfortunate that we're not getting the cultural opportunity that we would get otherwise," Olson said prior to leaving last week. "We had an unbelievable tour planned, but because the rule wasn't changed, it was obvious that we couldn't take our freshmen. When we took our trips, we did them not just for basketball, but for the educational experiences, too."
Oregon and UMass did take longer trips this summer, but both went to the Bahamas. Spending a week-plus at Atlantis in Nassau is great if you're with your wife and kids, but there isn't much of an educational experience in lying on the beach when you're not practicing hoops.
Wake Forest didn't even get that much. The Demon Deacons took a trip last weekend to Atlantis, and the one day they had to get outside and use the beach, it rained.
"The power even went out in the hotel," Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser said. "Wake Forest has class on Monday, so we got in late Friday, it rained Saturday [before the trip's first game], [we] played [again] Sunday and left. It wasn't as tropical a paradise as you would have thought, but the trip was [still] gratifying."
Prosser said he agrees with Olson. He took Xavier to Ireland and England in the mid-90's and loved the trip. Prosser is a student of history and loves reading, so taking a "full-fledged educational trip" was exactly what he wanted to do with his team.
"Almost every kid on our campus spends a semester abroad, but not athletes," Prosser said. "I'm a proponent of foreign travel, personally. In the global world we live in, it's an unbelievable experience for the kids. There are football players who play in a game before ever being a student, so if kids have completed summer school, I agree they should [be allowed to] go [on a trip]."
Florida's trip to Niagara Falls wasn't as crazed as some other trips last weekend. The Gators did have a long haul on Friday, but they didn't play until Saturday night. They held a shootaround at 1 p.m. Saturday and the day overall wasn't stressful. On Sunday, the Gators passed on a shootaround, played at 4 p.m. and then had plenty of time for a fun-filled barbecue before flying out Monday morning. Relaxed Florida coach Billy Donovan said the trip went rather smoothly.
That wasn't the case for Wichita State in Vancouver.
"Playing three games in 22 hours was tough, especially after Karon Bradley turned his ankle in the first game," said Wichita State coach Mark Turgeon. "It was great trip, but our kids were exhausted. It was a hectic trip. We got in there late Friday, went through customs, had a meal and got to bed late. Then we had games at noon and 7 p.m. the next day and 10 a.m. Sunday before going on a tour and dinner and a 5:45 a.m. wakeup Monday. That's a hectic trip.
"On the next one, I'd do a summer one, and maybe do it in a year where we have only one freshman," Turgeon said. "We did this trip because we had a redshirt [Colorado State transfer Phillip Thomasson] and a freshman [Israeli Gal Mekel] we wanted to get some games."
More often than not, these quick trips end up resembling a mini-camp followed by an intense, summer-league-type game schedule that sometimes includes two games in a day. The basketball, and the bonding that comes with the trips, is usually beneficial, but the cultural experience might be a wash.
The ultimate thing that comes out of these short trips is the bonding. It's the first true road trip for the group and the first exposure to how things are going to get done throughout the year. There is educational value in that, even if it's not related to art history, but clearly the more traditional tour, with everyone on the roster eligible to come, makes the most sense.
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.