It’s still mid July and most college sports fans no doubt have their attention set on football and the opening of preseason camps in a few weeks, but on Tuesday afternoon it was the Coastal Carolina men’s basketball team going back to work.
The Chanticleers convened in the gym at old Kimbel Arena for the first of 10 full-team practices leading up to their exhibition trip to Cuba next month, and before running the players through drills, coach Cliff Ellis used the opportunity to again speak to the significance of sending the program to play three games against the Cuban national team.
“It expands our brand, as I’ve said many times,” Ellis said. “It’s going to get national notoriety. … When we go to Cuba, we get to play against the national team, but we also go as ambassadors. What an educational experience it’s going to be for these guys to go over and see a country that our people have not seen in 50 years or so. So we’re all excited about it, looking forward to it and getting ready for it.”
The Chants are scheduled to depart for Havana, Cuba, on Aug. 6 with exhibition games set for Aug. 8, 9 and 11.
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As of Tuesday, Ellis said the program was still working to get all of its players cleared for the trip. Senior forward Badou Diagne was not at the team’s practice as he was home in his native Senegal on a planned trip, though Ellis did not specify which players’ statuses were still up in the air.
“We’ll just have to see how that all goes, but there’s one or two situations we’re still working on,” Ellis said. “Hopefully it works out, but the government handles that.”
Coastal Carolina has touted that it will be the first NCAA Division I college basketball team to play in Cuba, the isolated Caribbean island nation that just started mending relations with the United States in the last eight months.
As Ellis has told it, he was contacted shortly after the 2015 NCAA tournament by Sport Tours International president Lee Frederick, inquiring if the Chants would be interested in an exhibition trip to Cuba. Plans quickly developed from there.
“He said, ‘I saw your team play, you’ve got a number of players back, I like the way your team carried themselves – I think you would be good team to take to Cuba and be the first American team to go to Cuba.’ And I said, ‘Wow.’ I said, ‘Absolutely,’” Ellis recalled.
As for the players, they say they’re more focused on the basketball aspect of the trip and getting to test themselves against international competition during the offseason.
“I’m a little young,” junior point guard Shivaughn Wiggins said when asked about the historical component of visiting Cuba. “I see it as we’re getting a trip [to] get out of the country and go play international basketball.”
Junior guard Elijah Wilson said while he’s aware of the history between the United States and Cuba, he hasn’t gotten caught up in the latest developments between the countries.
“I haven’t really been reading too much, but I know about it,” Wilson said.
While the outside interest in Coastal Carolina’s excursion is largely tied to the mystique of the program playing in a country that has hosted few American sports teams of any kind over the years, there is no doubt a significant basketball component to it for the Chants as well.
Coming off back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances, Coastal Carolina is replacing its top two leading scorers in departed guards Warren Gillis and Josh Cameron. Getting to combine 10 practices in the middle of the summer with a series of competitive exhibition games is a prime opportunity to blend the team’s new pieces into the system.
“It allows us to bond,” Ellis said. “You know what it’s really good for is the young players. They’ll get the benefit. These international tours are really good for young players as much as anything. ... It only helps because the competition will be key.”
One such newcomer is sophomore guard Jaylen Shaw, a Hartsville product who had to sit out last season after transferring from South Carolina. He’s generated buzz in the offseason and should have a strong shot at the starting spot vacated by Gillis.
“With Warren being gone and Josh being gone, I think he fits right in because he’s experienced and he’s got the South Carolina, SEC experience,” Ellis said. “He’s getting adjusted, but he got to practice with our team [last season]. We got to see it. He was on the scout team a lot.”
Said Shaw: “It’s just a chance for me to get my feet wet out here with a new team.”
The Chants will have a better idea of how their retooled rotation looks after these next 10 practices, and as Wiggins said, the players are treating this as competitive venture, looking for a strong showing on the court.
So Tuesday was not about going through the motions.
“I don’t think we’re going to treat it like an offseason practice; I think we’re going to get right into what we do during the season,” Wiggins said.
But with a much different payoff awaiting at the end of this preparation.
Whether they fully appreciate the historical and cultural significance of the trip, the Chants will nevertheless be part of an experience unlike anything the program has ever done. While NCAA teams are allowed one of these foreign exhibition trips once every four years, this will be the first for the Chants in at least Ellis’ nine years here.
And a first in many other ways, as well.
“We’re all excited about it. We’re really looking forward to it,” Wilson said. “We only get to do this every four years as a program and luckily [we’re] here now at the right time to be able to enjoy the experience.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318 or on Twitter @RyanYoungTSN.