If you take a look at the 2003-04 Michigan men’s basketball schedule, there are several games that jump out as important. North Carolina State, UCLA, Indiana and Michigan State would all be big victories for Michigan this season.
But there are three very important games that don’t jump out. In fact, these games aren’t even on the schedule. On Oct. 11-13, over the University’s fall break, the Wolverines will be playing three exhibition games in Canada to kick off the season. Michigan’s first opponent will be the GT Express, followed by the University of Guelph on Oct. 12 and the GT Express again on the 13th.
Now, at this point, you’re probably wondering why you should care. On the surface, these games appear to be meaningless contests against teams you’ve probably never heard of and will never hear of again. You’ll probably never even bother to find out the final score of these exhibitions.
But in basketball, sometimes it’s the subtle things that make the biggest impact. The addition of this trio of exhibition matches may seem inconsequential (the GT Express won’t exactly be pushing Michigan to the extreme), but it is a brilliant coaching move by Tommy Amaker – one that will probably make a difference.
Why? Because by having this foreign tour on the schedule, the NCAA allows the Wolverines to hold 10 additional practices prior to the official NCAA starting date of Oct. 18. The Wolverines began practicing this past Sunday.
That’s a big boost for a young team looking to really find itself and jump back onto the national scene.
The NCAA rule specifically states that teams are allowed to take foreign tours when class is not in session. They are also allowed to hold 10 official practices prior to going on the tour. Before last season, schools just interpreted this rule to mean that foreign tours could only be taken during the summer. But last season, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski discovered a loophole.
Coach ‘K’ took his team on a foreign tour to London during the University’s fall break in October when classes were not being held. Essentially, this gave Duke the jump on every other team in the country.
By holding the tour over fall break so close to the beginning of the regular season, it makes those 10 additional practices very significant.
Now I know this little bit of extra practice is not the secret to Duke’s success, but obviously Krzyzewski felt it was important enough to take his team all the way to London.
But the secret is out, and several teams have decided to follow in Duke’s footsteps.
“We followed up on what Duke did and found out we could utilize our fall break to take a foreign tour,” Amaker said. “That gave us the opportunity to have 10 practices prior to the tour. It’s really an opportunity to grow and learn about our team.”
Notre Dame, Alabama and Marquette are three other teams that have scheduled a foreign tour over their respective fall break. The Wolverines won’t exactly have the jump over everyone like Duke did last season, but it will still make a big impact.
The other big plus about taking a foreign tour in the fall, as opposed to in the summer, is that freshmen are allowed to participate. This is big for the Wolverines, who are trying to break in several first-year players and integrate them into their system and philosophy.
“It will help them get over the shock of competing at the next level very early,” said Amaker of his freshmen. “They have to learn how to compete and concentrate on the next level, and this extra practice should be a big help.”
The extra practices and games should also help the Wolverines get off to a better start. Given Michigan’s disappointing 0-6 record to open the 2002-03 season, a little extra work before the season begins couldn’t hurt. Amaker says that starting well is one of the team’s main goals this season.
“Hopefully we will get out of the blocks a little better,” he said. “It was a steep hole we dug for ourselves last season, and we definitely want to try and improve that.”
Amaker says he’s hoping this “sneak preview” winds up helping Michigan in the long run. But whether it does or not, scheduling this foreign tour is yet another sign of Amaker’s commitment to bringing this program back.
Amaker scheduled the tour before he even knew the sanctions had been lifted. Why would you schedule three exhibition games to get your team additional practice when you’re not going to the postseason?
Because Amaker is thinking about the big picture. He’s got a vision for this team, and he’s not planning on abandoning it. But with the dream of a postseason bid now alive and well, these practices take on a different meaning.
“We need to utilize them in a different way,” Amaker said. “This is a positive thing for our program, and we need to take advantage of it.”
While that part will mostly be up to the players, Amaker is definitely giving them the best shot to succeed, and that’s what a successful coach does.
Naweed Sikora can be reached at email@example.com.