When the Oklahoma men's basketball team travels to New Zealand and Australia on a 12-day, four-game venture, the trip will offer many benefits. The most beneficial aspect came before the Sooners even boarded the plane.
Teams are permitted 10 practices in preparation for overseas trips. Under normal circumstances, a team is not allowed to commence formal practices until 42 days prior to its first competition, which meant OU would have waited until Oct. 1 this season. Thanks to this trip “Down Under,” the Sooners opted to spread practice sessions from July 9 through last Wednesday.
This is particularly beneficial when your roster features just one senior and four newcomers. It's also incredibly handy when a team can't wait to turn the page after an indescribably frustrating 2016-17 season (11-20 overall; 5-13 in Big 12 Conference) that featured nine losses of two possessions (six points) or less.
“Last year was an eye-opener,” OU seventh-year coach Lon Kruger said. “It was kind of humbling from the standpoint we have to do things different, we have to do more, we have to invest. When you lose a lot of close games, you realize, ‘Hey, we've got to do more in preparation.' And that's healthy for all of us.”
Rather than having to wallow two extra months, the Sooners were able to hit the reset button by practicing in July rather than October.
“It certainly benefits the players,” Kruger said. “The timing for this group is especially good with new guys coming in and guys returning who will have enhanced roles over a year ago. These (pre-trip) practices have been pretty similar to what we do in October. They're much different than what we would be doing during the summer if not going on a trip when you're only allowed two hours a week with players.”
"The timing for this group is especially good with new guys coming in and guys returning who will have enhanced roles over a year ago."
-- Lon Kruger
One player expected to have an increased role will be sophomore guard Kameron McGusty, who started 17 of 31 games as a true freshman last season, averaging 24.9 minutes, 10.9 points, 2.2 rebounds and shooting 35.2 percent from 3-point range. In conference play, McGusty led the Sooners in scoring with 14.4-point average, shot 38.0 percent on 3-pointers and was named to the Big 12 All-Newcomer team.
“We'd like to forget about last season, but at the same time, that motivates us,” McGusty said. “Nobody on our team wants to go through something like that ever again. It's what keeps us in the gym. It's what keeps us working hard. It keeps us focused in workouts and going hard in the weight room and at practice. It (stinks) that it happened, but at the same time, it's a motivator. We really can't complain. We have to live with it. You can't look at the past.”
Forward Khadeem Lattin, who started all 31 games last season, is the team's lone senior and said he considers last season to be a tough lesson learned. “You've got to learn from it and try not to repeat the past,” he said.
Kruger said Lattin (23.8 minutes; .516 field-goal percentage; 8.4 points; 6.3 rebounds; 2.1 blocks) will be looked on for leadership. Kruger said he also expects more from Lattin at the offensive end. “That's fine with me,” Lattin said.
“His role is going to be a little different,” Kruger said of Lattin. “Want him to be more aggressive to score, obviously a leader as a senior with enthusiasm. These practices have allowed him an opportunity to step out and do that.”
McGusty said the first couple of July practices consisted of introductory stuff, but the mood quickly intensified. “As time went on, we started bangin',” the 6-foot-5, 191-pound McGusty said. “We've been physical in practice, but you need that. You need to push your teammates.”
No argument from Lattin. “Being physical is a key point for us. That's our mentality this year.”
Friday essentially didn't exist this week for the Sooners, who crossed the international dateline en route to New Zealand and Australia. The team departed at 3:09 p.m. on Thursday out of Will Rogers World Airport and was scheduled to arrive in Auckland, New Zealand, at 2 p.m. Saturday (9 p.m. Friday Oklahoma time).
OU will face two teams from the National Basketball League (NBL), which is the country's premier professional basketball league.
The first game will be Sunday against the New Zealand Select team. The Sooners will sightsee Monday in Auckland, where OU redshirt sophomore Matt Freeman will serve as the team's tour guide in his native city.
“I'm excited for him and he's excited to show off his home to us,” McGusty said of Freeman. “We're ready to go on this trip. That's all we've been talking about all summer, honestly.”
The team will fly to Sydney, Australia, on Tuesday, play the Sutherland Sharks on Wednesday and follow with a game Thursday against the NBL Sydney Kings while also finding time to visit the famed Sydney Opera House. The Sooners will fly north to Cairns, Australia, on Aug. 11 and visit the Great Barrier Reef on Aug. 12. OU will play its final game against the NBL Cairns Taipans on Aug. 13 and return home on Aug. 14.
All told, the Sooners will travel approximately 22,500 air miles with roughly 48 hours of flight time. “It's a minute or two out of the way,” McGusty deadpanned, “but we're really looking forward to it.”
Every game will be streamed live online for free and also will be archived for later viewing. Games against New Zealand Select, Sutherland Sharks and Cairns Taipans will offer a one-camera stream via Facebook Live on Facebook.com/OUMensBasketball. The contest against the Sydney Sharks will have a full, commentated broadcast through a live YouTube feed produced by the Australian Sports Network. Links to all four games and updates throughout the trip will be available on SoonerSports.com.
|Date||Opponent||Time (CT)||Live Stream|
|Aug. 5||New Zealand Select||10 p.m.||Facebook Live|
|Aug. 9||Sutherland Sharks||4:30 a.m.||Facebook Live|
|Aug. 10||Sydney Kings||4:30 a.m.||YouTube|
|Aug. 13||Cairns Taipans||1 a.m.||Facebook Live|
Games will be played using FIBA rules with four, 10-minute periods and a 24-second shot clock.
Division I programs are allowed international trips every four years. Kruger, who is about to embark on his 32nd season as a collegiate head coach, has been to Australia with three other teams, but he has never been to neighboring New Zealand. It was a detour Kruger decided to add in part because of Freeman.
“It really is a great experience for the guys,” Kruger said of his previous trips to Australia. “The people are great, the competition is great, the food is good. It's not like it's a difficult transition in terms of eating or language.”
The last OU team to go overseas was the 2013-14 squad that went 4-1 in Belgium and France and featured Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins and Ryan Spangler prior to their sophomore seasons. Two years later, that group advanced to the Final Four and Hield was selected National Player of the Year.
“That was a good experience for them,” Kruger said. “Hopefully this trip will have a similar effect.”
Lattin has traveled throughout Europe, but never has ventured to Australia or New Zealand. Meanwhile, McGusty has never been overseas in either direction.
“Personally, I can't wait to hit the Great Barrier Reef,” said McGusty, a native of Katy, Texas. “That's my favorite thing, what I'm looking forward to most.”
As for Lattin, “I want to see a kangaroo. I'm cool with just seeing one. I want to pet it. I want to be close to a kangaroo, dude.”