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Tapas and Turkey a Conversation with CanesHoops Coach Konkol

We spoke to Miami Hurricanes assistant basketball coach Eric Konkol about the team's trip to Spain, how the team looked in late summer, the team’s non-conference schedule and other tidbits. Read on to learn more about what he had to say.

CanesHoops at Albaceta
CanesHoops at Albaceta

College basketball teams are allowed one overseas trip every four years, and with only three returning players but many talented newcomers, the timing could not have been better for a transatlantic journey. While the team played four games in Spain and returned home undefeated, Konkol said that the ten full-length extra practices allowed ahead of the trip are "a huge advantage...the practices are almost more valuable than the trip itself," as practice time is limited during the season. The ability for the team to bond without the pressure of competitive games is a major incentive as well.

With some teams taking trips to close by Caribbean locations, the Hurricanes went to Spain due to the depth of competition in the country (which has one of the top international leagues and national teams). That it is the homeland of a new Hurricane sealed the deal.

"We chose Spain because of Ivan [Cruz Uceda], and because we have several Spanish speaking guys on the team," including transfer point guard and Puerto Rico native Angel Rodriguez, Konkol told us. The staff was also excited at the opportunity to have a big alumni event and even to help with recruiting down the road. Youth basketball is big in Spain and Miami has proven to be a natural fit for Spanish basketball players, with Cruz Uceda coming aboard this year, as well as fellow Madrid native Laura Quevedo on the women's team. Konkol said the team hoped to "get some traction there, so if a kid is thinking about going to college, he might think of Miami."

Konkol told us that there were "so many question marks," and while the team played well and the coaches experimented with lineups, many of those questions have not been answered.  The team "needs to define roles in the next 2.5 months and "figure out which guys will help us the most and in which way."

Regarding individual players, Konkol said point guard Angel Rodriguez is a leader who has "got a way of getting that inner dog out of people," but he was unable to contribute having missed all four games and most of the practices with knee tendinitis.  Sophomore Manu Lecomte, fresh off of leading Belgium's promotion campaign in the European Under-20 Championships, led the team with 16 assists and would appear to be a capable replacement. Konkol told us that he spoke with Lecomte's Belgian coach who said he "can't believe how much Manu has grown physically and with his aggressiveness."   Of freshman Ja'Quan Newton, who spelled Lecomte at the point, Konkol said he "is very talented. Hee's slippery but he's trying to figure out how hard he needs to go, but he's got a very savvy game." Newton was third on the team in points with 13.5 per game, but also led with 16 turnovers.

The team's leading scorer, as expected, was Texas transfer Sheldon McClellan, who started all four games on the wing. McClellan averaged 20.0 points per game while also leading the team in steals and coming in third in rebounding. Konkol attributed some of the success to McClellan's weight-room prowess, including a 60-pound gain in bench press, and a renewed commitment to defense. "No question, he's been one of the most talented guys we've ever been around," said Konkol, but now he has "grown into the type of player we wanted him to be." Fellow wing Davon Reed played efficiently, coming in fifth in scoring and leading the team in free throw percentage, but his play was unfortunately overshadowed by the knee injury that he suffered in a post-trip workout, which was expected to sideline him for four to six months. Redshirt freshman bomber Deandre Burnett finished second on the team with 14.5 points per game and got to the line almost four times per game. Perhaps the greatest surprise on the trip was freshman guard James Palmer, whom Konkol described as "very clever" and said that he has a chance to be "very good." Palmer led the team in shooting percentage and hit four of seven three-point attempts, finishing fourth on the team in scoring, while posting a positive assist-to-turnover ratio.

As expected with the Hurricanes' plethora of talented guards, Konkol said that the team "really needs someone to emerge in the frontcourt." Returning center Tonye Jekiri struggled with foul trouble and did not contribute much on offense, with only 4.8 points per game, but did finish second on the team in rebounding with 8.5 per game. Ivan Cruz Uceda, the Madrid native, led the team with 11.0 rebounds, was the leading frontcourt scorer at 6.8 points per game, and also contributed eight assists. Like freshman Omar Sherman, who showed some nifty post moves, both bigs are "skilled' but need to improve their conditioning in order to play major minutes. Konkol added that fifth-year transfer Joe Thomas "was a key pickup," as he is a "specimen physically." Konkol sad that Thomas "benched 370 pounds his first day...he's a monster."

This was not Konkol's first trip overseas this summer. He recently traveled overseas to the European Under-18 championships in both Turkey and Bulgaria, hoping to expand the school's reach to overseas prospects. Though Miami's class appears full for 2015 and there were no specific prospects that he was watching, Konkol believes the trip was successful in planting "some seeds for the future so people would say 'Okay, Miami is an option.' So it was a good trip."

There is a major difference in  recruiting overseas players versus American players, according to Konkol. "In the U.S., you have the high school coach, of course, the parents, and then the AAU coach," explained Konkol. "Then you have to figure out who has the greatest influence, and most often, it's the AAU coach, though not always."

That's not how it works across the pond. "In Europe, it's different. There is no high school team," Konkol told us. "It's club teams, and because the clubs don't stop when you turn 18 - they turn into junior and professional level - the coaches don't want their kids leaving." So how does one go about securing information about the players? "You find out which kids are interested in college and just go to their parents. The other thing is that agents are a dirty word in the U.S.,  while over there, they are  considered to be experts and they are great for information - it was important for me to get to know as many agents and Euro scouts as possible because of that."

Konkol said that the tournament featured "high level players, all under 18" but cautioned not to expect to see many of the names in college basketball, as many turn professional in Europe. Trips to Europe are also often prohibitively expensive, especially considering the restrictive NCAA rules that limit the amount of time a coach can watch European prospects far more than with an American high school player. That being said, Konkol expects for the Hurricanes to be active in Europe for the foreseeable future, especially with larger classes in 2016 and beyond.

Scheduling note: The Hurricanes have 31 games on tap, as the team used a tournament exemption to play a "non-bracketed" game versus fellow Charleston Classic participant Charlotte two days after that tournament ends. Konkol told us that "it worked out where we felt like we needed another true road game . They will be really good, it's going to be a really tough game." Miami plays only one other true road game against Florida, as well as a neutral site game in Brooklyn versus Coach Larranaga's alma mater, Providence.

Special thanks as always to SOTU's College Hoops Consigliere Josh Frank aka @JoshDaCane