Before this summer, the sum total of what Merritt Hempe knew about Italy was this: the Leaning Tower of Pisa, people eat spaghetti and people speak Italian.
Georgia women‚Äôs basketball coach Andy Landers was decidedly less informed. When asked what he knew about Italy, Landers said, ‚ÄúAll I know about Italy is the Mafia kind of resides there, and spaghetti, and I found out that some of the best pickpockets in the world reside in parts of Italy.‚Äù
The Lady Bulldogs are now getting a boots-on-the-ground education about Italia, as they leave Athens today for a 10-day tour of the country that will include three games and a whole lot of sightseeing.
Georgia will open play on Thursday against All-Star Italy in Ponte Buggianese. On Saturday, the Lady Bulldogs will be in Venice to square off against ASD Societa Ginnastica, and next Sunday will find the team closing out its tour against Montecchio Select in Vicenza.
Although players weren‚Äôt terribly informed about Italy before it was announced they‚Äôd be making the trip, Landers has ensured they‚Äôre better versed by requiring each Lady Bulldog to prepare and present ‚Äî before practice each day ‚Äî a report on various cities and sites.
Landers, now entering his 36th season at Georgia, said he decided to have players do research on Italy for a couple of reasons. Besides wanting his team to have at least a cursory understanding of the country they‚Äôd be visiting, Landers also felt the daily reports would draw the team closer together.
‚ÄúHopefully, when a player presents their piece, either there or later, there‚Äôs some interaction between the players ‚Äî to facilitate more communication,‚Äù he said. ‚ÄúThere were reasons I wanted to do it, and at the end of the day (to) develop a familiarly to what it was we‚Äôre doing.‚Äù
He added that the sojourn itself could go a long way toward building all-important team chemistry.
‚ÄúThe thing I‚Äôm most looking forward to seeing is seeing our team interact, move around, talk, visit and look out for each other, that piece,‚Äù Landers said. ‚ÄúWe didn‚Äôt have bad team chemistry last year ‚Äî we just didn‚Äôt have as good a team chemistry as you have to have to be successful at this level. It‚Äôs not like we had kids that didn‚Äôt like kids or fights and fusses ‚Äî none of that.
‚ÄúYou guys may get along as well as you can. But we want to get better with that. We‚Äôre not a basketball team that has a player or two players we‚Äôre not worried about. ‚Ä¶So we‚Äôve got to be really strong together and that‚Äôs the thing I‚Äôm most looking forward to.‚Äù
Junior forward Hempe, whose report centered on the seven islands of Murano, said she‚Äôs welcomed the opportunity to learn about a place far away from home.
‚ÄúI‚Äôve enjoyed it,‚Äù said Hempe, who added she particularly responded to Sydnei McCaskill‚Äôs report on Vatican City. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs great to be well-rounded and learn about other cultures and other places.‚Äù
Freshman forward Mackenzie Engram, whose report focused on Lake Como, said she‚Äôs always wanted to travel but hadn‚Äôt considered Italy in her plans.
‚ÄúI‚Äôve always wanted to get out of the country, but Europe and Italy never popped in,‚Äù said Engram, who admitted much of what she knew about Italy came from watching ‚ÄúThe Bachelorette.‚Äù ‚ÄúI‚Äôve been to the Bahamas, but it was years ago when I was young, so it wasn‚Äôt really an experience I‚Äôll forever remember like this. ‚Ä¶I‚Äôm excited to go do what I love with the people I‚Äôm going to be with for the next four years.‚Äù
For a flight that lasts close to 10 hours, Hempe said she hoped to be able to fill up all the minutes.
‚ÄúI‚Äôll sleep, watch movies and listen to music,‚Äù she said. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm bringing a book, so I‚Äôll probably read some. I‚Äôm bringing ‚ÄòDrive‚Äô by Larry Bird. It‚Äôs my favorite book, so I‚Äôm probably going to read it again.‚Äù