Ann Arbor — Basketball can take you places.
For Michigan, it’s taking the Wolverines overseas for a 10-day trip to Spain, with stops in Barcelona and Madrid, that will include three exhibition games and plenty of sightseeing.
It’s the third time under Michigan coach John Beilein the Wolverines will be leaving the country and flying to Europe, following treks to Belgium in 2010 and Italy in 2014.
And while Beilein will be staying back as he continues to recover from heart surgery, it hasn’t dampened the excitement of the excursion that will begin on Friday and run through Aug. 26.
“It's crazy,” freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis said last week. “I'm so grateful that I landed on the year where we take the foreign trip. I'm super excited to get on that journey and bond with the guys.
"I've been to Spain once with Team Canada, but I haven't been to Madrid and Barcelona. I heard they are both beautiful cities, so just seeing them will be amazing.”
Under NCAA rules, college basketball teams are allowed to travel internationally during the summer once every four years. And the overseas trips — Michigan's is being funded by private supporters through the athletic department — can be eye-openers for players being exposed to different cultures off the court and new teammates on it.
Interim head coach Saddi Washington said he hopes the cultural experience Spain provides will help make the Wolverines a more connected and cohesive group.
“You got to understand that this is the first time some of these guys have left the country. They've been all over the U.S. playing basketball, but this is a different experience,” said Washington, who had a seven-year professional career overseas in Italy, France, Greece and Israel. “This is another layer to be able to go to a foreign land — literally — and hear and speak different languages, try new cuisines and play a different brand of basketball because the brand of basketball in Europe isn't particularly the same.
“All in all, it's about growth. We have this growth mindset personally and collectively as a team that we want to come back a better version of ourselves.”
One of the most beneficial aspects of the foreign tour is the coveted 10 days of practice that comes with it, especially since it gives Michigan’s coaching staff more time to work with freshmen Brandon Johns, David DeJulius, Colin Castleton, Adrien Nunez and Brazdeikis.
And while the games on these trips may vary in degrees of competition — Michigan beat every team in Italy by 30-plus points then went 16-16 that year — the Wolverines appear poised to face some decent opposition.
According to Washington, Michigan’s first game will be against the Madrid Generals, a team comprised of local free agents in the Barcelona area. The Generals lost to Ohio State by more than 30 points earlier this month.
The second contest will be against Serbian professional team KK Mega Bemax, which has sent nine players to the NBA since 2014, highlighted by Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic. Despite losing to Kentucky, 100-64, in the Bahamas last weekend, Bemax should provide a stiff frontcourt challenge with Goga Bitadze, a 6-foot-11, 245-pound center who is projected to be a second-round pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.
Michigan will wrap up its international slate against Liga ACB club Joventut Badalona, which competes in the top professional basketball division in Spain and has a familiar face on its roster — former Purdue sharpshooter Dakota Mathias.
All three exhibition games will be played using FIBA rules. None of them will be televised or streamed online.
“What I told the guys is, 'Hey, you're going to go up against grown men who are pros, who understand the physicality of the game. They're really smart players,’” Washington said. “Obviously, we want to go and we want to win, but the greater thing is we want to go and be competitive.
“That’s the main priority from a basketball standpoint, just getting the opportunity to play against somebody other than ourselves and I think the guys are starting to get a little anxious and feeling that.”
More importantly, it’ll give the coaching staff its first glimpse at how the freshmen — except for Castleton, who is sidelined with a broken right hand — perform and respond in a different environment.
Washington said he’s unsure whether he would mix up the lineups and try to evenly distribute playing time each game. However, he noted the returning players will get a healthy share of the minutes and he will also "put our young pups’ feet into the fire.”
Regardless of the results, the Spain voyage should give Michigan a crucial head start at building chemistry and sorting out roles heading into fall practice.
"We have a lot of work to do,” Washington said. “We're a young team and talented but when you look at the makeup of our roster, we have three guys who have had significant playing time in 'X' (Zavier Simpson), Charles (Matthews) and (Jon) Teske. The other 13, 14 guys are first- and second-year players who have either not played a minute of Michigan basketball or played a limited role.
“We might take some lumps along the way, but it'll be a good barometer of what we need to work on and areas we need to grow moving forward into the season.”