Men's Basketball

Playing abroad gives Sac State, UCD men’s basketball jump-start on season

Sac State and UC Davis men's basketball foreign tours

Sac State's Justin Strings and UC Davis' J.T. Adenrele, Darius Graham and Jim Les talk about benefits of summer men's basketball tours on Aug. 9 at UCD and Aug. 19, 2016 at Sacramento State.
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Sac State's Justin Strings and UC Davis' J.T. Adenrele, Darius Graham and Jim Les talk about benefits of summer men's basketball tours on Aug. 9 at UCD and Aug. 19, 2016 at Sacramento State.

For Sacramento State’s largely low-profile men’s basketball program, its first summer foreign trip turned into high drama.

The Hornets were mobbed by huge crowds in Taiwan during last month’s 38th William Jones Cup. Playing under the Team USA banner, the Hornets competed in a packed 6,500-seat arena in New Taipei City, went toe-to-toe with pro players, fielded questions from hordes of reporters and had their games broadcast on Taiwan’s version of ESPN.

Sac State played eight games in nine days against seven men’s national teams and a pro team from the Philippines that included three former NBA players.

“We had no idea what we were getting into,” Sac State coach Brian Katz said. “But it was an awesome experience, and we got way more out of it than I ever thought we would.”

While most men’s college basketball teams don’t officially start preparing for their seasons until October, the Hornets and rival UC Davis got a jump-start on the competition this year.

The Aggies, who left Saturday for a weeklong tour of Costa Rica, played Brock University of St. Catharines, Ontario, on Sunday and Monday and will play Costa Rica’s men’s national team Tuesday before returning home Saturday.

The Hornets and Aggies aren’t alone. Men’s teams from 63 colleges took summer trips abroad in 2015, generating $5 million in business for the travel companies that arrange them, according to Sports Illustrated.

The NCAA allows Division I basketball teams one foreign trip every four years. While most college teams are limited to two hours a week of practice during the summer, Sac State and UCD were able to practice 10 days in preparation for their events, which are played under international rather than college rules. Those include a 24-second rather than a 30-second shot clock, a farther three-point arc and four 10-minute quarters rather than two 20-minute halves.

UCD coach Jim Les has been a proponent of the self-funded tours, which combine basketball, bonding and cultural awareness. The trip is Les’ second in his six years as the coach. In 2012, UCD played four games in France and Italy. The Aggies went to France and Switzerland in 2008 under former coach Gary Stewart.

“We’ve tried to make a commitment to doing this every four years, so every recruiting class has this opportunity,” Les said. “We want to reward these guys because they work awfully hard as students and athletes. It’s also a recruiting tool for us to say that every recruiting class has been on a foreign trip.”

We had no idea what we were getting into. But it was an awesome experience, and we got way more out of it than I ever thought we would.

Sacramento State men’s basketball coach Brian Katz, on his team’s trip to Taiwan

FOR HORNETS, TOUGH COMPETITION, FRANTIC FANS

In the past, Katz gave foreign trips a lower priority than raising funds for his players to attend summer school, helping to ensure they graduate in four years. Of the 25 players who exhausted their eligibility during Katz’s tenure, 24 have graduated.

“I kind of saw it as the dessert, something you’d like to have, but you don’t need,” said Katz, entering his ninth season at Sac State. “We committed to this tournament late. But after our experience, now I see it as a priority.”

Although the team quickly raised funds through a golf tournament, comedy night and other resources, Katz had trepidations right up to landing in Taiwan a day late after a flight delay.

Most college basketball summer tours are like the one UCD is on, featuring a handful of exhibition games mixed with cultural enrichment opportunities. But the William Jones Cup, one of the top events in FIBA Asia, is a competitive tournament featuring national and pro teams with heavy media scrutiny.

“The last time they had a Division I college team in the tournament was 25 years ago,” Katz said. “I don’t know it for a fact, but I suspect a lot of (college) teams don’t want to play eight games in nine days during the summer. But it worked out for us. The competition was clearly over our head, so it really forced us to improve.”

The Hornets were 3-5, with victories over national teams from India and Japan and the Chinese Taipei B team, the only one with players of similar age. The Hornets’ only lopsided loss was 88-69 to Mighty Sports, a pro team from the Philippines that included former NBA players Al Thornton, Hamady N’Diaye and Vernon Macklin.

After a 12-hour flight delay from San Francisco to Taiwan, the Hornets played their first game 9 1/2 hours after landing in hot, humid New Taipei City while adjusting to a 15-hour time change. But the Hornets defeated India 62-60, led by Justin Strings’ 22 points and decisive three-pointer with 21 seconds to go.

“It was pretty amazing because we had been up for like 24 hours straight,” Strings said. “It was like, ‘Wow! I can’t believe we’ve been up this long, and we’re getting ready to play a game.’ 

Katz said the intensity of the competition will prepare the Hornets for the season, especially in the Big Sky Conference, where it is so challenging to win on the road.

“When we played Taipei (A), it was standing-room-only and a crazy atmosphere,” Katz said of the 86-71 loss. “I told the players there is no game this coming season that will be more electric than this.”

It’s unlikely that hundreds of fans will seek autographs, photographs and selfies from Sac State sophomore guard Jeff Wu this season, either. But that’s what happened to Wu, the first Taiwanese player to sign a D-I men’s basketball scholarship. Wu, who averaged 6.2 points as Sac State’s sixth man last season, is a popular athlete in Taiwan, one reason the Chinese Taipei Basketball Association worked hard to convince the Hornets to participate in the tournament..

“They love him so much over there, and I was impressed how well Jeff handled all the attention,” Strings said. “People were outside the hotel or waiting outside the arena for the bus so they could get a picture or even a glimpse of Jeff. After games, it was mayhem.”

Although the tour focused on basketball, Strings said one of the biggest highlights was taking an elevator to the top of Taipei 101, once the world’s tallest skyscraper at 101 stories. Strings said it provides an amazing view of New Taipei City, where nearly all 4 million people seem to own a moped.

Strings, whose only previous trip outside the United States was to Cancun, Mexico, said it was the experience of a lifetime.

“It was mind-blowing,” he said.

Being outside of the country for the first time and seeing another culture was huge.

UC Davis guard Darius Graham

FOR TWO AGGIES, IT’S A SECOND TRIP

UC Davis seniors J.T. Adenrele and Darius Graham anticipated a similar experience during their trip to Costa Rica. They had a blast on their previous visit to Europe four years ago, when they visited the Colosseum, Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica in Italy.

Both are medical redshirts, so they are among the few players who have a chance to take two foreign trips. This time, they are leaders.

“The first one to Italy and France, it was big for a guy like me coming in as a true freshman and being able to bond with the team,” said Graham, the former Sacramento High School point guard. “Being outside of the country for the first time and seeing another culture was huge.... (This trip), it’s going to be real good to bond, see what we are made of and build off of that.”

Adenrele, who is in his sixth season at UCD and has battled back from two knee injuries, said it will be an opportunity to develop chemistry for a group in which half the players are new or did not play last season.

“It’s big … especially for us stepping into leadership roles,” said Adenrele, a forward from Oakmont High. “It’s new for us, so the Costa Rica trip will help us step into that role.”

UCD, led by senior Lawrence White’s 16 points, won its opener 68-65 over Brock on Sunday.

While the focus is on becoming a better team, seeing life in another country can help keep athletics in perspective. Before departing, Graham said he looked forward to Monday’s visit to an orphanage.

“Being college student-athletes, we get wound up and stressed over things that are minimal compare with what they have to deal with,” he said.

Bill Paterson: 916-326-5506, @SacBee_BillP

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