With his team's second full practice for the 2019-20 season almost complete Tuesday afternoon, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball coach Lamont Paris broke into an easy grin and announced, "I'm in full snorkel mode."
Yes, snorkel mode. As in, the Mocs are headed to the Bahamas 11 days from today for three exhibition games, and everyone from Paris to freshman forward Jaden Frazier can't wait to board the plane for the Caribbean.
"Just to try some new food," said the 6-foot-10 Frazier from Pulaski, Virginia. "I'm a food guy."
Said senior Jonathan Scott: "I've never been out of the country before. I've never been farther south than St. Simon's Island (Georgia), and that was this past weekend. But I'm really happy to have the team coming together like this. This is really going to help the younger players get ready."
Added junior post player Ramon Vila, who previously went to the Bahamas during the 2016-17 season while playing for Arizona State: "It's one of the prettiest places in the world. When I was at ASU, I was the only guy to swim in the ocean instead of the pool. I can't wait to go back."
It is one of the few generous things the NCAA's draconian rule book allows. Once every four years a college basketball team can travel out of the country for an exhibition trip. Some schools go to Europe. Many go to Canada. Some take the Mocs' route to the Bahamas.
And while Paris was quick to label it "a reward for all the hard work they've put in this summer," there are often more pragmatic reasons for such a working vacation.
"Just going somewhere as a team," Vila said. "Every team that gets to travel together in the summer seems to get so much better the next season."
One need only look back to the 2014 Final Four to illustrate his point.
An assistant at Wisconsin in the summer of 2013, Paris watched a five-game summer exhibition trip to Canada help propel the Badgers to the sport's ultimate stage, though not without an early hiccup.
"We lost the opener to Carleton University, which is a really big basketball power in Canada," Paris said. "But it made us better. That was Bo's first Final Four team at Wisconsin."
To be fair to then-Badgers coach Bo Ryan, Carleton had won 10 of the last 12 Canadian college national championships. They were truly the John Wooden-coached UCLA Bruins of Canada.
But if Ryan responded by playing his eventual stars Frank "The Tank" Kaminsky and Nigel Hayes more than 35 minutes a game the rest of the tour, Paris has a far less pressurized plan for his Mocs.
"I want every single guy to come back with a story of something that happened to them in a game," said Paris, who's entering his third year with the program. "It can be something great, funny, bad. Doesn't matter. But I want each of them to come back with a story."
This is what every Mocs fan should appreciate about Paris. It's not only about basketball, nor should it be. It's what made Jim Foster and Wes Moore so special during their tenures with the UTC women. Yes, all these coaches are ultimately judged by their wins and losses, and that's fair. But it shouldn't be only about that for the players. After all, some folks still believe college should provide an education, and not only from what appears in textbooks.
"I remember when I went to the Bahamas for the Battle of Atlantis tournament with Wisconsin," Paris said of that in-season holiday tourney. "I think I went to the pool for maybe a couple of hours tops, because a couple of friends of mine had come down with their kids and I wanted to see them swim. There's an unbelievable water slide at Atlantis. I want to see the place a little more this time. I keep telling myself not to get caught up in winning and losing."
That said, he also appreciates the long-term value such a trip can have on an upcoming season.
"Just to get to spend all this extra time with each other," he said. "We get 10 practices to get ready for this. Not the one-hour workouts we all get each summer, but 10 two-hour practices. Just having them together to focus on basketball for two hours at a time is so helpful."
So 11 days from today, on Aug. 4, they'll board a plane for the Bahamas, returning on Aug. 9.
While there they'll play three games, including one against the Nigerian national team. They'll almost assuredly ride the water slide. Vila hopes to both snorkel and eat his fill of octopus and shrimp. Frazier is leaning toward devouring anything with crab meat.
But perhaps because Scott is a senior, he's also looking ahead to what this could be mean for his final season in Mocsville.
"There's a new maturity level this year," he said of the early practices. "Everyone wants to get better."
If that becomes the lasting story told by Paris's players about this trip, the 2019-20 season could be sliding into place almost before it begins.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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