Foreign tour gives teams a head start

Arkansas coach Mike Anderson watches Saturday, Oct. 24, 2015, during practice in Bud Walton Arena.

FAYETTEVILLE — Texas A&M’s run to the SEC men’s basketball championship last season began in Italy and Greece.

That’s where the Aggies played their first games together in August during a 10-day exhibition tour the NCAA allows teams to go on every four years.

Texas A&M went 3-1 playing foreign teams while traveling to Rome, Latina, Sorrento and Pompeii in Italy and concluding the trip in Athens.

“It was a huge benefit that definitely helped us,” Texas A&M Coach Billy Kennedy said Monday during the SEC coaches’ summer teleconference. “We had four seniors, but also so many young guys, so we were able to get our team in situations where they had to spend a lot of time together and get to know each other in atmospheres that didn’t have a lot of pressure.

“We developed strong relationships in that type of environment.”

The Aggies played in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011 and reached the Sweet 16 before losing to Oklahoma to finish 28-9.

Arkansas is one of four SEC teams hoping to follow Texas A&M’s path to success with an early start to the season.

The Razorbacks and Georgia will tour Spain in August; Mississippi State and Missouri will tour Italy.

All four teams missed the NCAA Tournament last season, and only Georgia had a winning record at 20-14.

Arkansas is looking to bounce back from a 16-16 record.

“It’s kind of a sneak preview in terms of some of the things we’ll be able to work on in the fall leading up to the nonconference schedule,” Razorbacks Coach Mike Anderson said. “So it’s going to be used to our advantage.”

The Razorbacks, who have seven scholarship newcomers and five returnees, are scheduled to be in Spain Aug. 6-16 with stops in Madrid, Valencia and Barcelona.

“It’s big to get the new guys on board with the old guys, that time for bonding,” Anderson said. “We’re always talking about developing during the offseason, so that’s going to be taking place.”

Teams are allowed under NCAA rules to have 10 practices at home before leaving for their foreign tours.

The practices may be more important than the exhibition games as far as the coaches are concerned.

“Our players are dying to get in the gym and work with the coaches,” Mississippi State Coach Ben Howland said. “They’re in there on their own at all hours. They’re in there at 6:30 in the morning. They’re in there late at night.

“I’d really like to see the NCAA, during the eight weeks that we’re allowed to be with our players, let us spend more time with them on the court. They want to be coached. They want to get better.”

NCAA rules allow the players to work out during the summer, but only two hours a week with the coaches, where they break up into small groups and focus on individual drills. They have six hours allowed per week for conditioning work with the strength coach.

“We have guys that are in the gym all the time, and they want us to come work with them, and we can’t,” Missouri Coach Kim Anderson said. “But these 10 practices we’re allowed gives us that opportunity to not only work with them individually, but also we can incorporate some things on defense and offense.

“We’ve got nine players who are freshmen or sophomores, so being as young as we are, it gives us a nice head start.”

Howland said the Bulldogs will utilize the 10 practices to work five-on-five along with devoting time to fundamentals.

“We’ll be putting in some of our fast-break stuff and working on our defense and offense and some of the schemes we’ll use,” he said. “Hopefully, that’ll carry over to the regular season and will be really good for our team moving forward.”

Dan Leibovitz, hired last week from the American Athletic Conference to be the SEC’s new associate commissioner for men’s basketball, praised teams for investing in foreign tours.

“I think it’s outstanding,” Leibovitz said. “The 10 practices are one thing, but the bond that you gain being together is something you can’t put a price tag on.”

Leibovitz said there are discussions about the SEC Network televising portions of some of the teams’ summer practices before they leave to go on tour.

“We could take advantage with the SEC Network to give some live look-ins at practices,” he said. “Get people thinking about basketball in August.”

Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl said he’s always had a positive experience when taking teams on a foreign tour.

“It has definitely translated to more wins,” Pearl said. “The competition itself was varied, but seeing a different part of the world and experiencing a different culture together just brings you closer.

“I’ve seen a tremendous return that very season after we got off the summer tour.”

Kim Anderson played professionally in Italy in the late 1970s, after being the Big Eight Player of the Year at Missouri, and said he’s looking forward to returning to where he lived in Forli near Bologna.

Howland said the trip to Italy will be the first time he’s been in Europe and that he’s going to take his family and make sure his players get a cultural experience.

“Playing the games will be fun, but we’re going to the Coliseum, the Vatican,” Howland said. “We’re going to be seeing thousands of years of history right there before our eyes.”

Mike Anderson saw those sites in the summer of 2012 when Arkansas took a tour of Italy.

The extra practices and exhibition games helped newcomers like Coty Clarke, Michael Qualls and Fred Gulley get used to playing with the Razorbacks and aided the comeback of Marshawn Powell, who had missed all but two games the previous season because of a knee injury.

The Razorbacks improved to 10-8 in the SEC during the 2012-2013 season after going 6-10 the year before.

“We’ll get a little snapshot of our team as we’re getting ready for this trip and then play in the games,” Mike Anderson said. “We’ll wholesale substitute and just see what these guys can do in a game setting.

“In the years before, we’ve used this trip to help us in terms of what we can become.”