Fresh off back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances the last two years, the Coastal Carolina men’s basketball team is preparing to make yet more history well before its next season even begins.
The university announced Tuesday that the Chanticleers will play three exhibition games in Cuba in August against the Cuban national team while claiming to be the first NCAA Division I team to play in the isolated Caribbean island nation now that the countries announced plans in December to begin normalizing relations.
The Chants will depart for Cuba on Aug. 6 and return Aug. 14, playing three games at Havana’s Sport City complex on Aug. 8, 9 and 11.
“I mean, what an opportunity,” Coastal Carolina coach Cliff Ellis said. “The boundaries and the borders have been closed for some time, and to go over and participate against the Cuban national team and go into a country we have not been able to go into and to be the first American team, I think it speaks volumes for our brand and what it’s become over the last few years. I’m just very appreciative. It’s going to be a great experience for our guys – in more facets than basketball.”
NCAA rules allow programs to take a foreign tour once every four academic years and this is the first for Coastal Carolina under Ellis, who will be entering his ninth season. The trip is being managed by Sport Tours International, and Ellis said he has a past history with the group’s president Lee Frederick, which factored into the Chants’ invitation.
“I’ve known him for a long time, had several trips with him in the past. He’s an international figure when it comes to tours and putting things together. He’s been involved with this kind of situation before and having gone with him at Clemson and Auburn and having known him, I know that his trips are first class,” Ellis said. “He’s one of those gurus that people know to go to when you’re doing something like this, so apparently the Cuban government reached out to him and he’d seen us play. He reached out to us and said, ‘I think you would be a good team to go over there and represent America, and I think it would be a trip you’d enjoy.’ He said, ‘Would you guys be interested?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely,’ and went to [athletic director Matt Hogue] and [university president David] DeCenzo, and of course everybody’s on [board].
“This is something that’s not just good for basketball; it’s good for our university. It’s going to spread our brand because there’s going to be a lot of national publicity. It’s going to be like, maybe more so than playing in the NCAA tournament. Everybody in the world is going to know that Coastal Carolina is over in Cuba playing basketball. It’s big.”
Frederick, the president of Sport Tours International, reiterated the historical significance of the exhibition games in a statement contained in the school’s news release.
“Coastal Carolina’s three games against the Cuban National Team in Havana will be the first time a Division I team has ever played in Cuba,” Frederick said. “That the administration and basketball program accepted the invitation from the Cuban Federation is a testament to the program’s increasing prestige on the national stage. It will be the trip of a lifetime for the student-athletes, and the seven days they spend on the island will change them forever.”
The Chants, who reached the NCAA tournament each of the last two seasons for the first time since 1993 and the first consecutive appearances ever in program history, are also scheduled to conduct clinics for players and coaches in Havana and Matanzas and participate in various community service programs during their stay in Cuba.
The Cuban national team is ranked 58th in the last FIBA international rankings, and Hogue said while details are still being finalized, it is his understanding the teams will play under FIBA’s international rules.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced in December plans to begin normalizing relations between the countries, including the lifting of some U.S. travel restrictions and the reopening of an embassy in Havana that closed in 1961 after the breakdown of diplomatic relations between the the United States and the communist nation – located just 90 miles off the southern tip of Florida – following the Cuban Revolution.
Obama and Castro then met face to face in Panama in April, marking the first time in more than 50 years that top leaders from the two nations formally sat down for substantive talks.
“Obviously relations between our country and Cuba are starting to ease and open up and most people have seen that in the news, and that’s leading to these types of opportunities,” Hogue said of Coastal Carolina’s planned visit. “And I think it’s awesome that we get to be on the forefront of that opportunity, not just going there to play basketball and to give our guys a great experience, but they have a chance to go kind of be pioneers, be ambassadors for our country doing something that no other college program has been able to do.”
Hogue reiterated that he didn’t know of any precedent for a college basketball team making the trek to Havana.
“To the best we know, documented, [this will be the first]. I don’t think it will be the first time that there’s been any type of college athletics in Cuba. If you go way back, I think even maybe in the 1930s there was a bowl game that was actually held there, but that was pre-revolution obviously and the politics have changed,” he said. “If there is one that has visited or one that has played, we’re not aware of it.”
The Bacardi Bowl was indeed hosted a handful of times in Cuba – last in 1946 – usually pitting American college football teams against Cuban squads.
More recently, the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League played an exhibition game in Havana against Cuba’s national team earlier this month, becoming the first American professional sports team to play in the country since 1999 when Major League Baseball’s Baltimore Orioles traveled to Cuba for an exhibition game.
The USA Baseball Collegiate National Team also played in Cuba in 2012 and 2014, and the University of Tampa’s baseball team – from the NCAA Division II ranks – played a handful of exhibition games in Cuba last year.
“I know it’s supposed to be a beautiful country and we’re looking forward to being an ambassador for American basketball,” Ellis said. “That’s basically what we’re going over to do.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318 or on Twitter @RyanYoungTSN.