How is team chemistry formed? Is it through shared experiences? Common goals? Overcoming obstacles as a group?
For this Oklahoma men’s basketball squad – still three months from opening the 2017-18 season – the process of creating that chemistry has already begun.
The core of the Oklahoma roster fought through a year of close losses in 2016-17, and now the entire team is fighting to revive the Sooner tradition of success one year later. From last season’s shortcomings to hitting the “reset” button in May, the foundation for a transformative summer was set into place by the commitment from the returning Sooners to relentlessly better themselves. Add in a hungry incoming class and you have a set of 12 scholarship players focused on a common mission this offseason.
Fortunately for the Sooners, the summer also provided an opportunity to guide and aid that transformative mindset. Taking advantage of the NCAA allowing basketball programs to travel abroad every four years, Oklahoma was granted 10 full practices throughout the summer to prepare for the upcoming campaign much earlier than an average season. The additional court time provided the team extra instruction from the coaching staff to begin fine tuning their faster-paced offense and integrating its newcomers with the returning core.
"Off the court, we definitely got closer as brothers. It was great bonding time. These are moments we’re never going to be able to get back and are memories that will last forever.”"
-- Trae Young
The hard work over the entire offseason culminated in an 11-day trip to New Zealand and Australia. Not only were the Sooners able to take what they’ve been working on all summer and pit it against foreign competition, but the team was able to grow and bond on a once-in-a-lifetime trip overseas.
“An experience like this helped us become better brothers,” said Khadeem Lattin, the Sooners’ lone senior. “It’s been really exciting. We’re always there for each other and this trip really emphasized some of those qualities that we have.”
Oklahoma’s trip “Down Under” began in Auckland, New Zealand. For many Sooners, it was the first time visiting any country outside of the United States. For one, it was a trip home.
Redshirt sophomore forward Matt Freeman, a native Kiwi raised in Auckland, had the rare opportunity as an international student-athlete to return home with his entire team. Freeman showed his teammates around Auckland, visited his old high school, welcomed the traveling party into his parent’s home for dinner and played an exhibition in front of a gym packed with friends and family.
The team spent one morning in Auckland visiting Matt Freeman's alma mater - Westlake Boys HS.
“It was great fun,” said Freeman. “A once in a lifetime opportunity to have everyone in our home...I knew the days would go real quick, but I think we did plenty of stuff that made most of the trip. Looking back on it, I had some learning experiences and surreal moments myself. In the country I grew up in we still went to places I've never been before and it was great having everyone there with me.”
After three days in Auckland, OU headed west to Sydney. Staying in a hotel one block away from the world-famous Sydney Harbour, the Sooners experienced three days in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The team walked along the sands of Bondi Beach, toured the architectural wonder of the Sydney Opera House and explored the numerous downtown parks and botanical gardens.
It was in Sydney that the Sooners also executed their first major basketball adjustment of the trip. After surrendering 91 points in the tour-opening win in Auckland, head coach Lon Kruger emphasized a sense of urgency on the defensive end to his team. In Oklahoma’s second game abroad, the Sooners limited their next opponent, the Sutherland Sharks, to 51 points on .303 shooting from the field in a 78-point victory.
The next night, Oklahoma got its first taste of top-level competition with a matchup against the National Basketball League’s Sydney Kings. Although the Kings were missing a handful of key contributors who were representing Australia in the FIBA Asia Cup, the pro squad still offered the Sooners a sizeable challenge and taller roster to test OU’s big men. Oklahoma claimed a 104-89 victory and led by as many as 29 points in the second half.
From Sydney, the group headed north along the Australian coastline to the tropical town of Cairns. Nestled along Queensland’s northeastern coast at the base of a mountainous rainforest, Cairns offered close access to one of Australia’s top sightseeing destinations – the Great Barrier Reef. The Sooners spent an entire day visiting the outer reef, traveling by boat and spending time snorkeling, scuba diving and observing breathtaking marine life and coral structures.
Half the team took the opportunity to learn how to scuba dive while visiting the Great Barrier Reef, including Kameron McGusty, Jordan Shepherd and Matt Freeman.
OU closed its time in Australia with a 110-85 win over another top pro team in the Cairns Taipans.
Kruger was pleased with the on-court play from the Sooners in all four of their games as the team averaged 119.0 points per game on 27.3 assists.
“Everyone played their minutes well and we were really unselfish with the ball, moving the ball well and making a lot of good plays,” said Kruger. “It was huge to have an opportunity to spend time together on the court in practice in Norman before we left and then to have the travel opportunity and to spend that time together. And then to have four games of competition against opponents we don’t know at all, guys had to respond to that as well.”
While the basketball element of the time abroad was worthwhile for both the players and the coaching staff, the constant time together experiencing the land Down Under was a tremendous step toward tightening the bond of the Sooners.
“On the court, we definitely came together as a team and played well,” said freshman guard Trae Young. “We won all four games which was our goal – to compete and have fun. Off the court, we definitely got closer as brothers. It was great bonding time. These are moments we’re never going to be able to get back and are memories that will last forever.”
Now back in Norman, the work is only just beginning for the Sooners. The team will be given some down time to rest and recover from the additional summer workload before returning to offseason workouts in the weight room until official on-court practices return in October. The Sooners aim to continue the high-intensity work they put in over the summer months during their final push to the long-awaited season opener.
“I’m super excited,” said Young. “I’m ready to be in Lloyd Noble and hear the arena loud and rocking. We’re gonna get it right this season and I’m looking forward to all the fans being there right by our sides through this whole journey.”
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