BARCELONA, Spain — On a cloudless afternoon off the Spanish coast, University of Virginia men’s basketball players showed they can shine in the water, too. One after another, from the catamaran carrying the UVA traveling party, they jumped or dove into the sparkling Mediterranean Sea.
Several Cavaliers are novice swimmers, but they were not allowed to miss out on the fun. They put on life vests, and their teammates provided assistance in the water as needed. Aboard the boat, assistant coach Brad Soderberg smiled as he watched the proceedings.
“I’m no psychologist or psychiatrist,” Soderberg said later, “but I saw guys really coming together and being friends, and that can’t help but draw us closer together. That’s the one takeaway from this trip that I think is real obvious: that the guys have had lots of time to get to know each other and spend time together. And when you have six guys that have never put on a UVA uniform before, I think that’s valuable.”
A 10-day tour of Spain that began Aug. 9 in Madrid ended Thursday in Barcelona, from which the Wahoos flew back to the United States. Along the way, the ’Hoos played five games, saw historic sites, sampled new cuisines and spent nearly every waking hour together.
“What an experience,” head coach Tony Bennett said.
"I want this to be etched in their memories forever – the things they have seen, the experiences that they will have had." -- Tony Bennett, head basketball coach
“This is unreal, honestly,” junior forward Isaiah Wilkins said. “I’m grateful for it. It’s something I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.”
Bennett said: “That’s what we talked about in the locker room after [the final game Wednesday]. I want this to be etched in their memories forever – the things they have seen, the experiences that they will have had ... I was blown away, and I know these guys will appreciate it more and more as they get older.”
UVA’s 2016-17 roster includes four players who were in high school just three months ago – freshmen Kyle Guy, Jay Huff, De’Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome – and two others who were in the program but sat out the games last season (redshirt junior Austin Nichols and redshirt freshman Mamadi Diakite).
In 2012-13, with a team that included freshmen Justin Anderson, Mike Tobey and Evan Nolte, the ’Hoos reaped the benefits of a summer trip to Europe. And so the coaching staff, with the blessing of UVA administrators, didn’t hesitate to pursue another tour four years later.
“When you take the opportunity to embrace a culture, visit sites, put away your mobile phone because you don’t have access, it kind of forces you to communicate with your teammates and hang out,” associate head coach Ron Sanchez said Thursday morning in the Barcelona airport.
“We definitely bonded as a group. Even for the coaches, being able to sit down and have dinners and spend time together was huge. It was just enjoyable.”
On the Cavaliers’ final night in Spain, before they boarded the bus that would take them to watch FC Barcelona play Sevilla in the Spanish Super Cup soccer final, Bennett said the players and coaches had “an overwhelming feeling of thankfulness” that the University allowed them to take the trip.
“It’s such a privilege every four years,” Bennett said, “to get this kind of cultural experience, chemistry experience, and then learn some things about [the team] basketball-wise.”
On the court, the ’Hoos went 5-0, beating the Madrid Generals twice, Arcos Albacete once, and the Sant Julià All-Stars twice. In only one of the games – the second in Madrid – was Virginia seriously tested.
“The games themselves were just OK,” Bennett said, “but at least we established a mindset to take us into what will be required [during the 2016-17 season].”
In each game, Bennett rested three of his scholarship players. Hunter, a 6-foot-7 forward from Philadelphia, was the only Cavalier to play in all five games. Of the other 12 scholarship players, 10 appeared in four games each. Senior point guard London Perrantes sat out two games, as did Wilkins, who started 21 games last season.
From a team that advanced to the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight, Virginia must replace such mainstays as Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill, Tobey and Nolte. The 6-2 Perrantes, heading into his fourth year as a starter, is the team’s lone senior and its most accomplished player.
“We know what he is,” Sanchez said. “We know how much he brings to the table. It was nice to watch the unit play without him also, to see what we have when he’s not on the floor, because he’s so important to us.
“But his leadership showed in the absence of Malcolm and Anthony and some of those older guys, and I think he did a great job of stepping in and saying the right things and coaching his team up from that position.”
Perrantes would have preferred to have played in every game, he said, “but then again I knew we needed the young guys to get as much experience as they can.”
The trip was about “laying the foundation [for the coming season], really,” he said, “and then everything after this is just going to be us moving forward.”
The Cavaliers were far from flawless in Spain, but “this is what these trips are for,” Soderberg said Tuesday night. “We’re getting a lot of game footage of a lot of our guys and seeing some areas that we’ve immediately got to address once we get back to official practice.”
Virginia broke down often on defense, particularly in the first four games, but some of those mistakes were “no fault of our players,” Soderberg said. “Some of this we just haven’t covered yet from an Xs and Os standpoint. Typically when we’re in the ACC schedule, we’ll have an in-depth scouting report and we’ll know what a team does and then have covered that.”
"Honestly, I feel like this is the best our team chemistry has been since I’ve been here. All the guys love each other, we’re having fun, and that’s what it’s all about." -- Isaiah Wilkins, Cavalier forward
The coaching staff returned to Charlottesville with a much better idea of what the players, especially the newcomers, can do.
“You recruit these young guys,” Sanchez said, “and you kind of have an idea of what you think they are, but you don’t really know until you get them on the floor and you give them some instruction and so on, and you get some legitimate feedback.
“Even in practices, it doesn’t equate to competition when the clock is up and they’ve got to make decisions.”
The officiating throughout the trip was uneven, and Sanchez’s mastery of Spanish proved invaluable for the Cavaliers, on and off the court. Several times during games Sanchez asked for – and received – rules interpretations from officials, and in the finale Wednesday night he chastised the crew when a Sant Julià player roughed up Diakite.
“I didn’t use any foul language, though,” Sanchez said, smiling. “That’s the good thing.”
Before heading home, the Cavaliers visited such cities as Madrid, Toledo, Albacete, Valencia and Barcelona, as well as two beaches along the Mediterranean. They played two games in Getafe, a suburb of Madrid, and two in Sant Julià de Vilatorta, a small town about 55 miles north of Barcelona.
“Spain is an amazing place,” Perrantes said.
No two stops on the trip were alike. In Getafe, seven of the 20 lights in the 100-seat Pabellón Felipe Reyes were out during the second game, and neither net on the court was fully intact.
In Albacete, the players warmed up to Drake’s “Trophies.” In Sant Julià de Vilatorta, the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA” played over the P.A. as the opening tip approached. Before the first game in Sant Julià de Vilatorta, the smell of horse manure wafted through the open doors of the 500-seat Pavelló Esportiu Municipal as a hard rain fell outside. The next night brought torrential downpours before the game.
A series of tour guides, colorful characters all, enhanced the traveling party’s understanding of such sites as the Royal Palace in Madrid and the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.
Bullfighting is prohibited in some parts of Spain, including Barcelona, but it remains popular in other areas. The team visited two bullrings: Las Ventas in Madrid and Plaza de Toros in Valencia.
Outside the bullring in Valencia, the Cavaliers’ tour guide informed the group that, years ago, horse meat and bull meat would be fed to local children who needed to bulk up. Then he turned and pointed at the 6-11 Huff, who did not clear the 200-pound mark until this summer.
“Like him,” the guide said, drawing laughter from his audience.
If the ’Hoos were unsure about the popularity of soccer in Spain before arriving, they had a firm grasp by the time they departed. Early in the trip, the Cavaliers received a private tour of Real Madrid’s lavish training facility outside the city. Later came visits to two famed stadiums: Bernabéu and Camp Nou, where Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, respectively, play their home games.
At Camp Nou, the ’Hoos saw Lionel Messi work his magic with a goal and an assist in FC Barcelona’s 3-0 win over Sevilla. Several of the UVA players wore Messi jerseys in the stands Wednesday night.
“I’m a huge soccer fan,” Guy said. “All my friends back home played it, so I had to learn it, and it was an amazing experience to be able to go to Europe and watch it.”
Every team must form its own identity. How the Cavaliers will fare in 2016-17 is still to be determined, but there was clear progress this summer.
“Of course [players such as Brogdon] are a big loss, with their experience and leadership,” Wilkins said. “But I saw guys stepping up in the locker room before we left and talking on the court over here. Honestly, I feel like this is the best our team chemistry has been since I’ve been here.
“All the guys love each other, we’re having fun, and that’s what it’s all about.”
The trip to Spain, Guy said, “definitely brought the team chemistry and team camaraderie to a whole ’nother level. We came here as friends, and now we’re walking out as brothers.”