Aug. 14, 2014
By Chad Shepard
As summer begins its end and the academic year grows closer, the University of Michigan men's basketball team grows increasingly excited about the season to come. While action in the Crisler Center is still a few months away, the William Davidson Player Development Center has played host to plenty of basketball this summer, complimented by the traditional soundtrack of of squeaking shoes and bouncing balls.
The group has been hard at work, both in the classroom and in the gym. The incoming freshman class has endured the Summer Bridge program, and summer term has just ended for those returning veterans who were taking classes.
For a team that has already grown close in a short time but has plenty more room to develop before the season tips off in November, the opportunity to travel to Italy on a 10-day exhibition tour, which runs Aug. 15-24, will be uniquely beneficial, says head coach John Beilein.
"We're ready to continue the growth that this team is really going to need all year long," he said. "It will be good for us."
The team will see at least five cities while in Italy, including Rome and Venice, and will visit several other iconic locations such as the Vatican and Colosseum. Though there is much to be gained from a basketball perspective, the team is also excited about the wide variety of off-court attractions that Italy offers.
"This will be the first time out of the country for a lot of the guys," said Derrick Walton Jr.. "We're looking forward to sightseeing and enjoying the time out of the country, so it's definitely a great opportunity for some team bonding."
Freshman forward Kameron Chatman is one several Wolverines who will be heading overseas for the first time.
"I've never been to that part of the world before," said Chatman. "We're going there to become better as a team; we know that. We're going to grow there, on and off the court. Hopefully we can get some wins while we're there, but we're going to enjoy the cultural experience too."
One aspect of the trip that the team's experienced players feel will be especially valuable is the opportunity to watch film of themselves against a real opponent, particularly for the incoming freshmen.
"We're looking forward to sightseeing and enjoying the time out of the country, so it's definitely a great opportunity for some team bonding."
-- Derrick Walton Jr.
"I know as a freshman it was always good for me to see myself on film," said Walton, "Our guys will benefit from seeing their mistakes, and that helps them learn to not make the same mistake twice."
"I know in high school you watch a little bit of film, but not as much film as we're going to watch here," said LeVert.
"It's going to help out a lot," said Donnal. "Seeing what we're doing and learning from everything is a big part of we do here at Michigan. We watch a lot of film and learning from our mistakes is critical when it comes to fixing what you may be doing wrong."
Beilein said the team, particularly the incoming freshman class, has done a surprisingly good job of picking up team concepts at both ends of the floor and applying them right away. Watching film will only add a new dimension of understanding, as players will be able to see the real results of well-executed system play, as well as what happens when a mistake is made, and the importance of the fundamentals Beilein's teams live by.
"Right now we're throwing the whole game at them," said Beilein. "When we come back in September they will have a whole different understanding of how important these things we do in practice are to their success."
The team's schedule while abroad includes four contests over six days, competing against several professional Italian All-Star teams. Matching up against older, more experienced clubs will give the players a barometer on their progress that feels much more tangible.
It will also help prepare U-M for the physically demanding Big Ten as the team prepares to defend its first outright conference crown in 28 seasons, a task that Zak Irvin knows will require physical strength as well as mental fortitude
"This is a very physical conference," said Irvin. "Those of us that played last year are used to that."
One thing that returning players aren't used to is competing against professional teams whose rosters are loaded with men that are closer to 30 years old than to 20.
As part of a young frontcourt with virtually no game experience, Donnal knows what can be gained from this exhibition tour, for both himself and newcomer Ricky Doyle.
"It's going to be a learning experience," said Donnal, "Learning how to position yourself both offensively and defensively against bigger guys is something that's going to be beneficial us during the season and especially going into Big Ten play."
"That physical competition is really going to help in the Big Ten season," agreed LeVert. "I know Mark (Donnal) and Ricky (Doyle) are both looking forward to it."
"Neither one is afraid of physical contact," said Beilein of Donnal and Doyle. "That has been really impressive so far. They don't back off at all, and I love the idea that they are embracing that."
Ultimately, the opportunity to grow together as a group and experience top-level competition at such an early stage in the year at the same time will benefit the team greatly down the road.
"To get these games in August is a huge advantage for us," said Sean Lonergan.
Andrew Dakich agreed with Lonergan, noting the importance of battling through difficult games as a team now, so the experience is there to fall back on when going through the toughest stretches of conference play.
"There's going to be adversity," said Dakich, "No team is ever a walk through the park so we have to make sure we're ready by playing as hard as we can day in and day out."
The more the team gels off the court, the more visible the results will be on the court, and the group's overseas journey together provides an opportunistic setting for those two forms of development to occur simultaneously.
Though the team's schedule will be packed each day, filled with sight-seeing, visits to iconic landmarks and of course, basketball, the growth that will inevitably come from the experience will manufacture a new closeness for these teammates, as well as life-long memories.
After all, that packed schedule will really feature just two things: fun and games.
John Beilein Pre-Italy Trip Press Conference (08/13/14)