SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO – Early on Tuesday, the Gophers piled on a commercial flight and made a pit stop in Atlanta before arriving at their destination — San Juan’s Luis Muñoz Marín Airport — about nine hours after their travel day began.
Once on the Caribbean island, there wasn’t much time for beaches and exploration. The men’s basketball staff enforced study hall for most of the afternoon, and then the team took a bus to a local high school to practice that night. Starting Thursday, a Gophers squad depending on the rapid development of several freshmen and sophomores will face three quality opponents in four days in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off.
“It’s a great field and great competition,” coach Richard Pitino said. “I know our guys are fired up for it.”
The Gophers are one of many teams willing to travel far and face tough tests in college basketball’s ever-growing lineup of “holiday tournaments.” This season, 180 teams will play in 24 major tournaments before the conference season. Of these two dozen events, only nine were around 10 years ago.
The hectic schedule and short preparation time between games can take their toll on teams, especially young squads such as the Gophers. A poor tournament showing could derail early confidence, at a time of year when power-conference teams need to be posting victories, and stain an NCAA tournament résumé.
“It can be challenging,” Pitino said. “There are a lot of things to factor in.”
The rewards outweigh the risks, however, for most programs. The events bring great exposure, challenging competition, bonding opportunities and provide another recruiting draw. Many coaches, Pitino included, also relish the opportunity to take players off campus for unique on- and off-court experiences.
“Everything is first-class,” said Temple coach Fran Dunphy, whose Owls will play the Gophers in the tournament opener. “The basketball is spectacular, but there’s a tremendous learning environment with it as well.”
Butler second-year coach Chris Holtmann echoed that sentiment.
“We love having an early tournament like this,” he said.
Big Ten coaches must agree. Thirteen of the conference’s 14 teams are traveling to a destination tournament, with Maryland’s trip to Cancun next week perhaps being the most ambitious. Only Ohio State, which does play neutral-site games in Miami next week and New York City in December, made a schedule without one. Five of those 13 trips, including Minnesota’s, feature the frenetic three-game slate.
But for some, the fun of these events only goes as far as the victories. Holtmann’s only experience in a holiday tournament thus far came last year when his Bulldogs beat North Carolina and Georgetown. “I don’t know if I’d enjoyed it as much if we’d have went 0 and 3,” he said wryly.
Both Holtmann and Utah’s Larry Krystkowiak said the risk of a rough trip is greater for young teams, which have spent limited time together before the holiday events. Those two coaches have rosters full of veterans, but with only hours between matchups, even experienced teams can quickly tumble.
“You’ve got to get your mind right a little bit,” Pitino said. “Are you prepared to endure that?”
Two years ago, in Pitino’s first season, the Gophers and their nine upperclassmen traveled to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational. Their first-round matchup? No. 8 Syracuse. The Orange trumped Minnesota 75-67, and the Gophers didn’t give Arkansas much of a fight the next day, losing 87-73. Less than 24 hours later, Minnesota trailed Chaminade, an NCAA Division II team, before finishing on a 28-7 run to win 83-68 and notch its lone victory of the tournament.
Three-and-a-half months later, Pitino pointed to that experience as a major reason the Gophers fell short of the NCAA tournament despite a top-10 strength of schedule.
“We’ve got to understand teams that had schedules [ranked] in the 30s and 40s … they got rewarded,” he said then. “Our goal is to make it to the NCAA tournament.”
Former Gophers coach Tubby Smith, now guiding Texas Tech, looks at it differently. Under his leadership, the Gophers won the 2010 Puerto Rico Tip-Off, beating No. 8 North Carolina in their second game, and beat 19th-ranked Memphis and Stanford in the Battle 4 Atlantis in 2012. That year, the Gophers went on to finish 8-10 in the Big Ten and sneaked into the NCAA tournament as a No. 11 seed.
One of the major factors in their inclusion? Their Bahamas-boosted strength of schedule, which was ranked fourth nationally at the time.
“It gives you a higher RPI,” Smith said. “Even if you lose to some of those high-ranking teams, at least you played them. It’s hard to [schedule] those teams in a home-at-home situation. So that’s the key.”
Smith is responsible for scheduling this trip to the Puerto Rico Tip-Off for the Gophers, as well as recent visits to the NIT Season Tip-Off and the Maui Invitational. Pitino hasn’t scheduled any for next season yet.
“Moving forward, we have got to figure out if we want to travel far,” Pitino said. “Do we get the exposure which we’re getting with the ESPN stuff this next week? Do we get great competition? We have to look into all of those factors.”