The last time Drew Hanlen visited Italy, he used basketball as a tool to connect with underprivileged children and teach life lessons.
When the Belmont senior point guard returns to Italy next month, it will be for a completely different reason.
This time, basketball won’t play a small part — it will be the focus of a team-building expedition.
“It is going to be a really different experience,” said Hanlen, who went to Naples, Italy, in May as part of a mission trip with 10 other Belmont men’s and women’s basketball players.
“The last time we went over there, we were mainly working with communities [where] there was a lot of drugs and alcohol,” he said. “This time we are going to a few of the nicer cities. But I think the biggest thing about this trip that will be good is just building on last year’s team chemistry, getting to be with the guys for 10 days exclusively, with no other outside distractions. I think it will definitely bring us together.”
The Bruins will visit Florence, Lake Como and Rome from Aug. 14-23. But they aren’t the only area men’s basketball team leaving the country for a preseason hoops adventure. Lipscomb heads to Puerto Rico from Aug. 10-16, and Middle Tennessee State will be in Canada from Aug. 15-19.
The NCAA allows a team to embark on a foreign trip every four years. Belmont played in France and England in 2007. Lipscomb was in Canada in 2005. The Blue Raiders also went to Canada, visiting Toronto in 2003. They will venture to Calgary this time. Vanderbilt will have to wait two more years for its next international preseason trip as the Commodores visited to Australia in 2009.
The schools are responsible for funding the trips. That might require raising more money annually or cutting back in other areas. Middle Tennessee State, for example, will play at UCLA on Nov. 15 as a part of the “Maui on Mainland” tournament. Though MTSU was not one of the eight teams chosen to play in the actual Maui Invitational, the Blue Raiders will use their paycheck from the contest with UCLA to help fund the trip to Canada.
Of course, the benefits of such a trip are endless. The players get the opportunity to visit a different country and unify as a team.
Belmont coach Rick Byrd has never been to Italy. He is looking forward to visiting a new country more than the basketball games the Bruins will play there. He hopes that feeling trickles down to his players.
“It is an opportunity college athletics gives us,” Byrd said. “We’re still supposed to be part of the educational process. All parts of the time that they’re at Belmont is part of their education. Whether they get [school] credit for it or don’t get credit for it. A lot of what you learned in college wasn’t in the classroom. I think all of us feel that way.
“… We will obviously try to win games and all that will be serious during that time. But the rest of it will be about seeing places and learning about places you have never been to.”
After Lipscomb went to Canada in 2005, the Bisons capture their first Atlantic Sun Conference championship that ensuing season.
“I think it definitely impacted our team,” Lipscomb coach Scott Sanderson said. “It gives our players a chance to feel each other out. It also gives our coaches an opportunity to figure out how we want to play… There are a lot of benefits behind this trip.”
During the summer, coaches can hold individual workouts with up to four players. But they aren’t allowed to meet with the entire team until Oct. 15 – the first day of practice.
But teams that embark on foreign trips are allowed 10 practices beforehand, not including the actual games. MTSU begins practice on Wednesday and Lipscomb will start on Friday. Combined, MTSU and Lipscomb have 15 newcomers. Therefore, they’ll take advantage of all 10 practices.
“I think we all go to try improve on the court,” MTSU coach Kermit Davis said. “Obviously, the team camaraderie and being able to have an educational experience and doing some things with your team is great. But obviously we are all doing it for 10 days of practice to try to improve our team, to get further along offensively and defensively, for us to really be able to watch new guys in game experience, which I think is invaluable.”
Belmont, on the other hand, lost just two players from last year’s NCAA Tournament team and will wait to begin practice until Aug. 9 – only five days before they leave.
That veteran leadership should come in handy when the season rolls around in November. It is also why Hanlen believes the trip to Italy will only help the close-knit Bruins.
“In our locker room last year, there were no problems. There were no issues at any point during the season. Most teams have one or two issues. We had none,” he said. “I think every single one of us is looking forward to it. We have been Tweeting like crazy about it. I think this is something that is going to start off the year with a bang, and hopefully we can end the season with a bang as well.”
For Lipscomb, the excursion won’t be just about basketball.
Inspired by former guard Josh Slater, who went on a mission trip to the Dominican Republic a few years ago, the Bisons will also reach out to the community.
“People are obviously less fortunate than we are, and for us to be able to do some community service over in the Dominican Republic I think will be a real eye-opening experience for our players,” Sanderson said.
“It is an opportunity for our guys to give back together to people in need and get ourselves out of the center and put other people before ourselves. That is a big part of this trip for us.”