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June 5, 2007

Hoops offseason has international flair

Anyone facing Washington State next season may be subject to the following phrases:

G'Day, mate. Good game, bloke. What were you thinking, mug?

The last one could be considered a little trash talk, Down Under style. Mug is slang for a "fool" in Australia.

Washington State left on Saturday for a two-week trip to Australia and New Zealand, making the Pac-10 school the first of at least 10 programs from major conferences this summer to take advantage of the NCAA rule allowing a foreign trip once every four years.

The SEC leads the way with four programs heading to various locales in August and September Alabama (Ottawa), Auburn (Guadeloupe and the French West Indies), LSU (Toronto) and Tennessee (Prague, Vienna and Bratislava). The ACC and Big Ten don't have anyone making a trip.

Going Down Under was the logical choice for the internationally flavored Cougars, who return four starters and every key bench player from a team that was the biggest surprise in college basketball last season with 26 wins and a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Cougars were picked to finish last in the Pac-10 and hadn't had a winning season since 1995-96.

Guard Thomas Abercrombie was born in New Zealand, and center Aron Baynes is from Australia. Both have argued endlessly with their American teammates about why rugby is a better sport than American football.

Second-year head coach Tony Bennett, who was selected Rivals.com's 2006-07 National Coach of the Year, and assistant Ben Johnson both played professionally and coached in New Zealand. Johnson met his wife in Australia.

"It's the perfect location," forward Daven Harmeling told Rivals.com. "We have a great opportunity to get better over the summer, have some fun and a lot of guys get to play in front of their families."

Plenty of hard work precedes the fun. While most college basketball players were on vacation in late May, Harmeling and his teammates were on campus going through drills and running sprints.

All teams making foreign trips are allowed 10 practices, perhaps the biggest advantage of scheduling the trips.

"It gives us a chance to do a little extra work," Bennett said. "We can establish some things going into next season and gain some continuity."

Establishing more offense appears to be one of Washington State's priorities. The Cougars gave up just 59.5 points a game, lowest in the Pac-10. On the flip side, they scored just 66.9 points per game - eighth in the league.

Finding a replacement for Ivory Clark, the only departing starter, is another task. The 6-5 power forward provided much of their defensive presence on the inside, averaging a team-high 1.5 blocks a game last season.

"Our practices were a little different," Harmeling said. "We didn't have as much emphasis on defense, which has been the staple of this program for so long. We have been more offensive-oriented. We scrimmaged a lot. It was very intense and competitive."

The intensity could stem largely from some words Bennett offered before the first practice. He said the people who helped put together their six-game schedule, which includes a contest against the Australian national team, told him the Cougars would go 4-2 or 2-4.

The Cougars don't take kindly to be considered an automatic loss anymore.

Team Destination Departure date
Alabama Ottawa Sept. 1
Auburn Guadeloupe & French West Indies Aug. 8
Baylor Cancun Aug. 31
LSU Toronto Sept. 1
Marquette Vancouver Sept. 1
Oklahoma Vancouver Sept. 1
Oregon State Italy Aug. 21
Providence Italy Aug. 22
Tennessee Prague, Vienna & Brtislava Aug. 8
Washington State New Zealand/Australia June 2
"I think the guys are a lot more confident," Harmeling said. "Success hasn't made us lackadaisical. If anything, it's made us hungry for more."

Bennett doesn't want them trying to sustain that hunger for eight consecutive months, though. While most schools scheduled their trips during the fall semester, he purposefully made sure the Cougars were leaving several weeks before classes started.

Bennett has been on two trips overseas himself, most recently going to Italy as an assistant coach with Wisconsin. He also headed to Ukraine for three weeks with Johnson in 1990 during their playing days at Wisconsin-Green Bay. That following season the Phoenix set a school record by winning 24 games and reached their first NCAA Tournament.

"If we go in August it can make for a real long season," Bennett said. "They would get back and start school up soon without much separation or break."

There are disadvantages to leaving before the fall semester starts, mainly the inability to include true freshmen.

While Washington State won't be able to bring any of the four players it signed in its 2007 recruiting class, Baylor will be taking its three signees on a trip to Cancun beginning Aug. 31, 11 days after school begins.

LaceDarius Dunn, a four-star shooting guard from Monroe, La., will get a chance to learn the Bears' plays and work with his new coaches and teammates before many freshmen start orientation.

The same goes for a pair of five-star prospects whose teams are taking trips. Oklahoma's Blake Griffin and LSU's Anthony Randolph, who could each start immediately, will have the benefit of the extra practices and scrimmages.

The Sooners, who bring in three other freshmen and a junior college transfer, are heading to Vancouver along with Air Force, Idaho and UC-Santa Barbara on Sept. 1.

LSU, which signed two other freshmen and two other JUCO transfers, takes off for Toronto that same day.

"Being allowed to take freshmen is definitely an advantage," Baylor coach Scott Drew said. "The competition we face won't be very good, but more importantly, it's a chance to get to know one another. We'll be able to build the bonding process at an earlier rate, especially in a more relaxed atmosphere."

Oregon State's trip to Italy, which begins on Aug. 21, will likely have a more serious feel. With the possible loss of four starters - leading scorer Marcel Jones has entered the draft but has yet to sign with an agent - the visit will serve as a battle for future playing time as several young players will be getting a chance to earn bigger roles.

"The trip is going to accomplish a lot for this group," said John, who took trips to Australia and Europe during his days as an assistant at Butler and returned to Austrlia during his first season at OSU. "We've got five games and it will be like a mini-season. It's a chance to gain experience and maturity and face game-type consequences.

"It could be a wake-up signal or a forewarning of what is about to come. It creates accountability. Are the players where they think they should be? Are we as coaches where we think we should be? We will find out by the time the trip is finished."

The rebuilding Beavers will be finding time to have some fun too. Every foreign trip comes includes some off-the-court activities, which are often designed to expose the players to a new culture.

Washington State's itinerary includes a much-anticipated rugby game and some snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef.

"It will be my first rugby match, that's the way it is for most of the guys," Harmeling said. "But even if we end up liking it we are going to act like we're not impressed. We can't let (Abercrombie and Baynes) go around bragging."

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.

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