COLLEGE PARK - The Maryland Terrapins' basketball season won't officially get under way for another three months.
The Terps will have to wait even longer to confront the rigorous demands of the Atlantic Coast Conference, which could begin the season with five of the top 15 ranked teams in the country.
So as his team boards a plane today, set for a 12-day tour of Italy and five games against some of Europe's top professional teams, Maryland coach Gary Williams isn't overly concerned with how the Terps fare in the present.
Williams said he believes Maryland will reap the rewards from this trip at a later date.
"You want to be organized, in decent shape and hopefully play pretty well, but the big thing on trips like these is the experience of being together overseas and seeing things you wouldn't ever get to see," said Williams. "What you're trying to get out of this is not what record, but how you mature. You want your team to come together, but you also don't want to peak too early."
The NCAA allows one foreign trip every four years, but this will be Maryland's first since Williams' 1994-95 squad traveled to France.
In addition to playing tour guide - day trips to the Vatican, the Basilica of St. Mark and the Colosseum are among the sightseeing stops planned - Williams will get a head start with a team that came together during last year's surprising run to the ACC Tournament title.
Every player on that 20-12 team, the youngest in college basketball last season, returns except for leading rebounder Jamar Smith. The Terps have brought in James Gist, a 6-foot-8 forward out of Good Counsel in Wheaton, and Sterling Ledbetter, a 6-5 point guard who transferred from Allegany Community College, but neither will accompany the team per NCAA rules.
Williams acknowledged that his staff will be forced to make some hard decisions in assembling a rotation, but those will wait until November.
"I believe the guys are starting to realize that the coaches are watching," said point guard John Gilchrist, last year's ACC tournament Most Valuable Player. "They're always watching and you have to set your mark and prove [yourself]. You know the coaches are figuring lineups in their head and seeing how to position ourselves so we can be the best possible team." More than anything else over the next 12 days, Williams will get a chance to experiment and - at least in mid-August - his options appear limitless.
Gilchrist is the Terps' established point guard and team leader, but he could share the backcourt with Chris McCray, who started every game last season, or Mike Jones, or perhaps even D.J. Strawberry.
Williams might be tempted to employ a three-guard lineup, but that decision could hinge on how much centers Hassan Fofana and Will Bowers and forward Ekene Ibekwe, who reportedly has added 15 pounds of muscle to his 6-9, 211-pound frame, have developed since their freshman years.
"Every competitor's mind-set is to win, but we're going over there to become better as a team and to get ready for the season," said forward Travis Garrison, who averaged 7.8 points and 5.2 rebounds as a sophomore last season. Garrison and Nik Caner-Medley are returning front-court starters. "This trip will show how the chemistry is with certain players."
The average age of their opposition will be 29 and the Terps have been warned about the hostile environment that awaits in certain Italian gyms.
"You'll have your teammates, your coaches and about 100 [Maryland] fans and that's it," said McCray. "It's going to be just like an ACC away game."
That's just fine with Williams, who is trying to keep the trip in perspective.
"I try to hold them back a little bit," said Williams. "This isn't the season. This is all just part of the building process."
Terps' Italy itinerary
Today: Fly overnight to Rome
Day 2: Check into hotel; coach Gary Williams hosts welcome dinner at local restaurant
Day 3: Tour Rome, Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel; first game against Veroli
Day 4: Tour the Colosseum
Day 5: Visit the Tuscan and Umbrian countryside; travel to Academia to see Michelangelo's David statue
Day 6: Travel to Pisa or Siena; second game vs. Pistoia
Day 7: Visit Venice
Day 8: Walking tour of Venice; third game vs. Kiev (Ukraine)
Day 9: Depart for Lake Como; fourth game vs. Biella
Day 10: Travel to Lugano, Switzerland; fifth and final game vs. Varese Roosters
Day 11: Boat trip to Belaggio; Williams hosts farewell banquet
Day 12: Return to College Park