Leaving the country to experience a different culture is an adventure that many college students look forward to for years. It’s an opportunity to gain valuable experience and knowledge while being exposed to a different region of the world.
It’s a similar formula for athletics. Championship-caliber teams are created through experience and knowledge gained during challenging situations — in competition and in practice. Team chemistry is developed by exposing a committed group of athletes to a variety of different experiences.
The University of North Florida basketball team reached the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament championship game last year, becoming the first group in program history to accomplish that feat. Nearly every player from that squad is returning for the Ospreys in the upcoming 2011-12 campaign.
Third-year head coach Matthew Driscoll and his staff elected to use a form of studying abroad with this year’s team this summer. The group took a week-long trek in Canada with one singular focus – study “chemistry” and learn the “formula” necessary to take the next step as a program. The Ospreys played three games from Aug. 4-10 during their tour of Ontario.
“We wanted to get our veteran group of players together to begin our focus on the new season,” said Driscoll. “We needed to remember how we played down the stretch in March, and then identify and correct the things we needed to in order to reach our ultimate goal of winning the A-Sun Championship.”
The NCAA allows basketball programs an opportunity — once every four years — to take a team on a playing tour outside the U.S. borders. Teams have played in Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Australia, Europe and China. Along with having the chance to play early games, the NCAA also gives team’s taking a foreign tour the opportunity to hold a couple of weeks of practice prior to departure. This is a tremendous advantage because all the other teams don’t practice together until the middle of October.
With a large group of returning players and only a pair of newcomers to welcome to the fold, Driscoll said he felt like this year was the perfect time for UNF to take a summer trip.
“I’ve been in coaching for a number of years, and I try to watch and study things,” Driscoll added. “When I was coaching at Baylor, we had a strong group of returning players one season that we wanted to mesh with a couple of impact newcomers. We took a summer tour and it ended up being the catalyst for us turning into an NCAA Tournament participant. This year’s UNF team was in a very similar situation. We had a lot of guys coming back with a few talented newcomers joining the group, and we wanted to just sort out and solidify some roles and positions earlier instead of having to work through that during the preseason. We went to Canada to take care of our blending and meshing, and I feel like it has really worked well.”
The team began its trip Aug. 4 with a flight to Detroit and a night’s stay in the Motor City. The following day, UNF enjoyed lunch with a family friend of the Driscoll’s before boarding a charter bus to cross the border into Windsor, Canada. The day ended with a practice session in preparation for the first game.
The Ospreys faced the Windsor Lancers Aug. 6 for the first of two games between the squads. UNF built a double-digit halftime lead en route to a 75-63 victory. North Florida improved to 2-0 the next day after posting a 73-64 win over the Lancers. Following the game, the team boarded the bus for a short trip over to St. Catharines, Canada, a suburb of Toronto.
While developing as a team was the primary focus of the trip, Driscoll also allowed and encouraged the players to see and experience the different culture. To that end, UNF spent all day Aug. 8 sightseeing in Niagara Falls and Toronto. The group went to the Falls in the morning and even rode the Maid of the Mist to the edge of the waterfalls. Later that evening, the team made the quick trip up to Toronto.
“I think that the changes in culture are huge,” said Driscoll. “As a Pittsburgh native, I just figured everybody had been to Niagara Falls, but I realized it was a first for almost the whole group. For our guys to have the chance to see the beauty of the Falls and to have the chance to visit an NBA city like Toronto, it is hard to put a price tag on that.”
UNF closed the competition portion of the trip with a final game against Brock University Aug. 9. The game was a challenge for the Ospreys because it was played using international basketball rules, which included playing four quarters instead of two halves. It also includes the international three-point line and different timeout rules. Despite the different style, North Florida remained undefeated after eking out an 85-81 victory.
Early the next morning, the team crossed the border back into the U.S. near Buffalo and caught a flight home to Jacksonville.
“I think it was a great experience for us to get out of the country,” said Jerron Granberry, a junior returning to the team. “We went to Mexico last season and now to go and see Canada was pretty amazing. It was cool for us to get out of the States to not only see how others live but it was also for us to have a chance to see the different style of play in another country. This trip really brought us together and built up our team unity. It was different for us because none of us had phones. We had to interact with each other which helped us to become an even tighter family.”
The lessons learned during the summer tour of Canada should go a long way in deciding how UNF fares on this year’s report card.