COLUMBIA -- When the USC men's basketball team takes off for Europe today, all eyes should turn to Evka Baniulis. The reason has little to do with basketball.
The junior forward is from Lithuania, has flown over the Atlantic about a dozen times, and already this summer has been to the three countries the Gamecocks are visiting over the next eight days. So he should be the expert, right?
If only that knowledge helped on the plane trip. Teammate Austin Steed has never left the U.S., and the longest plane ride he's ever been on was three hours. So in preparation for the 10-hour flight from Atlanta-to-Prague, he receives this advice from Baniulis:
"It never gets easier. It's long and boring."
Star guard and former Chester standout Devan Downey had another strategy: "I'm just gonna pop a Benadryl or something."
Once they land, the jet-lagged Gamecocks will play four games in three countries: The Czech Republic, Slovakia and Austria. Basketball, however, does not seem to be the main thrust of the trip.
Team-building is the goal, whether it's passing time on the plane flight or doing what new coach Darrin Horn called "touristy" things. USC has an entirely new coaching staff, but 11 players who were all on the team last year.
"This trip is more about bonding with coaches. We as players have a bond already," Baniulis said. "This trip is more about welcoming coaches into the family. Just get to know each other better. So I mean, it's not really much of a basketball trip, it's more of a getting-to-know-you trip."
They will have plenty of time to see each other off the court. Teams cannot practice on these trips, so the only basketball activity will be the games.
"The basketball will be basketball, and the other part will be fun," Horn said. "We just think the experience of it, the educational portion of being in a different country, traveling overseas, is really, really important. And it's hard to enjoy that if you're having film session at 9 o'clock in the morning for the games the night before."
The NCAA allows teams one foreign trip every four years, so this trip was originally put in the works by previous coach Dave Odom. Because of the trip, USC was allowed to hold 10 summer practices, and Horn took full advantage.
As for the four games, Horn is looking for some balance between trying to go 4-0 and play everybody. He plans to try different lineup combinations, and see how the players do in his system against real opponents.
But there will be a limit to how much teaching can be done.
"The game experience will give us some opportunity to see how guys react and how we do," Horn said. "But we're so far from having everything in, we're not going to get too caught up in exactly how the trip goes as much as the practices leading up to it and really just being able to take (the trip.)"