What basketball teams bring home
Italian customs officials have been seeing a lot of women’s college basketball teams this month. Once every four years, Division I teams are allowed to travel overseas during the summer, and in August, West Virginia, Miami, Oregon State, Illinois State, and George Mason all head to Italy. These trips are typically heavy on cultural experiences and light on the basketball. But teams are allowed ten full practices before they head overseas, which is a substantial supplement to the four hours per week student-athletes can typically practice with their coaches during the summer.
I spoke with coaches and players from five teams that are taking foreign trips this month to discuss their expectations for the trip, what they’re most looking forward to, and why 2019 was the year they picked to go overseas. In addition, Her Hoop Stats’ Calvin Wetzel spoke with Illinois State on these topics and was kind enough to share his notes with me.
The six programs represent six different conferences and are a mix of Power 5 and mid-major schools. Some were top-25 teams and made NCAA tournament appearances last season, while others had seasons they’d like to forget. All six have newcomers they hope will particularly benefit from this trip, and Tennessee also has a new head coach: alumna Kellie Harper, who is preparing for her first-ever foreign tour as a player or coach.
Despite the differences between the programs, many similarities emerged in their foreign tours. Logistically, many programs use tour groups such as Basketball Travelers, which partly explains why so many teams are touring the same cities. Illinois State head coach Kristen Gillespie said she was thrilled that her director of basketball operations, Katie Bolkema, could soak up the experience rather than having to manage all the logistics, as she does during the team’s regular road trips. In addition, several teams have sold travel packages for donors and other fans to come along. George Mason head coach Nyla Milleson explained what that element will bring to the trip: “A big thing in women’s basketball is, people want to know the players. They want that up close and personal. … [On this trip,] the fans get a chance to see our student-athletes in a different environment and off of the floor and get to really know them.”
It’s also clear that for every team, the basketball component of the trip is secondary to the cultural and educational components. Gillespie called the experience “once in a lifetime” and said, “I would feel horrible if I was finding a gym instead of seeing the Vatican … Is that really going to make a difference? I don’t think so.” Miami head coach Katie Meier recalled the Hurricanes’ 2015 foreign tour, which included a 9am game in Paris. The tour group mentioned to Meier that it could arrange for the team to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower at night to see it light up, but assumed she would not want to because it would have to be the night before the game. “I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? Like, we’re going to the top of Eiffel Tower at midnight … and we’ll be at that game at nine o’clock. Don’t worry about it.’ But we’re not missing that moment. Because they’re never going to forget that moment.”
At the same time, the coaches I spoke with generally expected the trip to give their teams an advantage on the court this season. West Virginia coach Mike Carey, who will take his fourth foreign trip with the Mountaineers this month, explained, “Where I notice the biggest difference is when you really start practicing [in the fall]. I mean, they know some of the drills already, they understand the concepts already … I think it gives you a little bit of a jump going into the season, without a doubt.”
With those similarities established, let’s take a look at each team and its travel plans individually. Even though some have chosen the same destinations, each program has its own motivations and goals for traveling overseas, and no two trips will be exactly alike.