Buongiorno from Italia! After somewhere between 20-30 hours of travel, depending on how you do time zone math, the Mississippi State basketball team arrived in Rome on Wednesday morning for a two-week, four-game exhibition trip in Europe. Days one and two were mostly devoted to sightseeing and acclimation to the area and new time zone, including visits to the Trevi Fountain and The Vatican in Rome, as well enough local food to feed most families for a month.
The trip to Italy and Switzerland will include nearly a dozen cities, and is important to second-year head coach Ben Howland for nearly as many reasons. Certainly, he recognizes the cultural opportunity this is for himself and his players, calling it a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Like his team, it’s Howland’s first time in Italy, as well.
But among trips to the Sistine Chapel and the Leaning Tower of Pisa, another something important is happening with MSU’s basketball team – emphasis on basketball. A young and talented group, largely made up of the best signing class in school history, the chance to build chemistry both on the court and off couldn’t come at a better time.
The extra time for development and cohesion as a team is a great benefit, and Howland and the staff have made sure to drive that point home to the players, repeatedly reminding them how much they want to win a difficult first game in Rome against the Lithuanian National Team. It showed in practice on Thursday – an activity many teams might have skipped, opting to wait have a shoot-around on game day. Howland wanted his team to get on the court ahead of time, to learn the gym and to get experience with the rims. He wants them ready. And with a young team, he wants them to get better. This is too prime an opportunity for him not to take advantage.
It was evident in practice, too, where his demeanor while coaching down the street from the Roman Colosseum was the same as it is in Starkville at the Humphrey Coliseum. On one end of the court, Howland ran guards through situational drills. On the other, forwards were put through their paces, coaches teaching technique and developing skill rather than just repetitive drills to keep them fresh.
When practice was over, Howland was as serious and demanding as ever, reminding them they couldn’t leave the court until the objective was met. As the players watched each other shoot free throws in order, Howland stood and stared, expectantly and stone-faced, pausing only to offer coaching advice on form or to congratulate the players who made both of their shots.
When enough free throws had been made in few enough shots, Howland’s final words to the team before exiting the court reminded them that they have a goal here.
“We want to win this game tomorrow,” he said, looking from player to player, making sure they understood the message.
They’re here to get better.
But they’re here to have fun, too. Call it the Duality of Vacation, if you like, and the first two days in Italy have certainly been entertaining as players experience a completely new culture.
“Do you know where I can get a regular water?” freshman forward Schnider Herard asked Fabio, the team tour guide for the trip.
Fabio laughed, while just to Herard’s left, senior point guard I.J. Ready was cautiously pouring a liter of satisfactorily non-carbonated water into his Gatorade bottle before they left breakfast.
Just as funny is watching the team of very large basketball players wander around a city of very averaged-sized people. In the Sistine Chapel, freshman guard Eli Wright was pointing out the snake wrapped around a tree in the middle of the ceiling, explaining to his teammates that the snake and the man and woman next to its tree were Michelangelo’s representation of Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. In the midst of such historic artwork, people who had presumably traveled thousands of miles to see that masterpiece were too busy staring at the 7-feet tall young men standing 100 feet below the painted ceiling.
In the square outside of St. Peter’s Basilica, the biggest and grandest church in the entire world, a pair of 20-year-old men stopped to take their picture not in front of the enormous building, but with basketball players. They didn’t even attempt to get the Basilica in the background.
“We are the same age,” one of the tourists said in awe after asking and learning how old sophomore guard Quinndary Weatherspoon is.
He couldn’t believe he was the same age as this large person he presumed to be a star in America. The fact that Peter himself – THE Peter – was buried a mere 100 yards away seemed almost secondary in that moment.
MSU’s players and coaches, however, were certainly wrapped up in the tour, taking pictures and videos every chance they had along the way, enveloping themselves in the history and the experience, not to mention the beauty.
Two days in, with more than a week to go, the Bulldogs are enjoying the experience, even if some of the cultural specifics require occasional adjustment.
“It’s incredible,” Wright said when asked what he thought of the trip so far. “But the food is different – they don’t use any salt or butter.”
Perhaps they could do without some of the unhealthy add-ons for a bit, anyway. They do have four games to play, after all. And as Howland has reminded them, those are four games they want to win.
MSU plays Lithuania Friday morning at 11:30 central time, and the game will be live-streamed by @HailStateMBK on Periscope as wireless internet access allows. Follow @HailStateMBK on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to keep track of the team’s trip in Europe.