Last week I took advantage of NCAA bylaw 18.104.22.168 to witness real live college basketball during the summer. Granted, it was just a practice -- one of ten that Saint Louis University was allowed to hold because of that bylaw -- but it nonetheless featured Division I athletes running plays at the behest of their coaching staff. The open practice featured dunks, fastbreaks, and floaters, all of which served as a welcome reminder that the second Friday in October can't come soon enough.
The Billikens were preparing for a late August trip to Canada, where they'll play exhibition games against schools like the Windsor Lancers and Western Ontario Mustangs. The NCAA calls this a "Foreign Tour," which Division I programs are eligible for once every four years. Coaches like these tours for a variety of reasons. It gives them ten days of practice time that otherwise wouldn't be permitted in the summer. It allows them to see how new strategies and rotations look against real competition. And it also provides the players with a chance to build chemistry and camaraderie while exploring a new country.
Now coaches may have another reason to hop aboard the plane. A 2010 amendment to the "Foreign Tour" bylaw allows programs to bring along incoming freshmen as long as they're registered in summer classes. This gives coaches the ability to integrate their newcomers with returnees ahead of schedule.
A recent ESPN article breaking down some of this year's more noteworthy foreign tour participants reveals that coaches may in fact be using this amendment to their advantage. Of the 20 programs discussed in the EPSN piece, about half exhibit a real need to develop newcomers. One might wonder, then, if the experience of an international trip increases the odds that freshmen will get playing time during the regular season. Since the new rule has been in place for a year now, we can look at last year's bunch of international travelers to see if coaches allowed newcomers to play increased minutes following their tours.
Starting with a list of all teams that trekked to foreign lands in 2010, I zeroed in on the ones that had employed the same head coach for at least four years prior to their tour (though I did make an exception for John Calipari -- he's John Calipari). Then I looked at team statistics to determine the overall minutes per game that freshmen played for those coaches in each of the previous four seasons. This number was divided by the total minutes per game of all players who appeared in a minimum of 20 games in a given year. To control for size, this quotient was then divided by the number of freshmen. The result is the percentage of minutes played per game by a freshman, on average (from here on referred to as Freshman MPG%).
Coach Team 4-year Freshman MPG% 2010-11 Freshman MPG% Change
John Calipari* Kentucky 9.4 16.0 6.7%
Bruiser Flint Drexel 7.8 13.3 5.5%
Homer Drew Valparaiso 5.6 8.3 2.6%
Bill Carmody Northwestern 9.4 11.7 2.3%
Ted Woodward Maine 6.5 8.3 1.8%
Rod Barnes Georgia State 6.3 7.1 0.8%
Jamie Dixon Pittsburgh 4.3 5.0 0.7%
John Beilein Michigan 7.4 7.3 -0.1%
Tubby Smith Minnesota 7.4 7.3 -0.1%
Rob Jeter Milwaukee 7.3 6.6 -0.7%
Mike Sutton Tenn Tech 7.1 5.6 -1.4%
Scott Nagy South Dakota St 9.2 7.6 -1.7%
Jim Larranaga George Mason 7.2 3.6 -3.6%
Mike Young Wofford 6.1 0.0 -6.1%
Doc Sadler Nebraska 9.2 0.0 -9.2%
*Includes seasons at Memphis
The results of this exercise show mixed results for newcomers. About half of the coaches studied ended up playing freshmen more minutes per game than they might have in prior years. Not surprisingly, John Calipari tops this list. It's well-documented how Kentucky's trip to Canada last August helped them gel around several newcomers who went on to become major contributors all the way to the Final Four. But for each Calipari there's a Doc Sadler. The head Cornhusker took his Nebraska team on a foreign tour last year despite the fact that it featured zero freshmen.
Due to the split nature of these results, one might presume the impact of the bylaw change was not fully felt in year one. About half the coaches in this sample scheduled their foreign tours for the same old reasons they did in the past: to practice, to strategize, and to build chemistry. Or maybe those coaches simply didn't like what they saw out of their newcomers, and their playing time suffered as a result.
The other half of the coaches, however, just might have seen enough on their voyages to convince them that their freshmen deserved some playing time. While this exercise doesn't attempt to prove that the foreign tour caused such a change, it is interesting to see that there was some change. For the many first-year players who are participating in a foreign trip this month, there's hope that a good showing in August could lead to real role come November.
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