Let the bonding begin.
Missouri men’s basketball left Friday for Italy — via St. Louis and Detroit — embarking on a 10-day international tour, which the NCAA permits every four years.
It’s a unique cultural experience for the players, but such trips often set the stage for year-over-year improvement as well.
That’s definitely the aim for Mizzou, which went a combined 19-44 in third-year coach Kim Anderson’s first two seasons.
“I’m really excited about this for a lot of different reasons,” Anderson said. “First of all, just for our team chemistry, but also the opportunity to travel to a foreign country, the opportunity to spend time together as a team learning not only basketball, but learning about, in this case, Italy.”
The Tigers, who were allowed 10 practices in the weeks leading up to the trip, will suit up 13 players for four exhibition games.
Freshman forward Reed Nikko, who is recovering from surgeries on both hips last spring, won’t play and junior forward Jordan Barnett, who transferred from Texas last winter, isn’t eligible with MU until Dec. 17.
Reed and Barnett are allowed to travel.
“I went to China last year when I was at Texas, and that was a really fun trip,” Barnett said. “I can’t even imagine what it’s going to be like going to Italy. It’s my first time in Europe, so I’m sure it will be a really good sightseeing experience as well as a good team experience.”
Teams frequently use the extra practice and early exhibitions as a springboard, which is Mizzou’s goal as it tries to claw from the Southeastern Conference cellar.
“I don’t know whole lot about the teams that were playing,” Anderson said. “I know two are from Lithuania, one is from Italy and one is the Kosovo national team. It’s really not about who were playing. It’s about us and can we get better.”
Game results may not paint a true picture of any progress made in Italy as Anderson will shuffle lineups liberally, work on different offensive and defensive sets and generally try to get a feel for the roster.
“It’s going to help us in the long run,” freshman guard Frankie Hughes said. “Of course, in the season, scouting reports are everything, but going to something you don't know anything about is good. You never know what to expect. It builds a lot of character.”
Missouri special assistant to the head coach Brad Loos spearheaded planning for the trip.
The Tigers, who are scheduled to land in Rome shortly after 9 a.m. local time (2 a.m. Central) Saturday morning, will tour the Italian capital that afternoon, including a visit to the Coliseum.
Missouri plays LCC International on Sunday before visiting Vatican City on Monday and traveling to Florence.
That will be followed by a game against BC Silute on Tuesday morning followed by sightseeing Wednesday around Florence, including a stop at the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
The Tigers will arrive Thursday in Venice for a visit at Caserma Ederle Airbase in Vicenza, Italy, on Friday before a game against Vicenza Select.
By next Saturday, Mizzou will be in Milan to play the Kosovo national team.
“It gives us a great jump start,” sophomore forward and Blue Springs South graduate Kevin Puryear said, “especially with the season being not too far away.”
The Tigers will wrap up the trip with a cruise on Lake Como next Sunday before departing Aug. 15 from Milan to return stateside.
During the trip, Mizzou will have a couple seasoned guides, including Anderson.
“I’m excited personally, because I play there a long time ago,” he said. “Melissa and I were married and moved to Italy three days after we were married. You guys should try that.”
Sophomore guard Terrence Phillips also spent sixth grade in Italy.
“I remember it, but I don’t remember much,” he said. “I’m excited to go back and get more of an educational feel to it, since we are bringing someone with us (for an accredited class). Getting more of that vibe will be more exciting.”
He and his teammates also are excited about what the trip can do for the team.
“You’ve got a good group of guys that’s going to come together,” freshman forward Willie Jackson said. “The chemistry is going to come up and we’ll be closer. I think it’s going to put us ahead of the other teams in the SEC.”
Beleaguered Missouri basketball fans certainly hope the trip has a positive impact.
“We want to put Mizzou back on the map,” Phillips said. “That’s our big focus this year, putting Mizzou back on the map and putting the heart back in Mizzou arena.”