The St. John's women's basketball team is ready to take Europe by a storm and they've got the t-shirts to prove it.
For the first time in program history, the Red Storm is heading to the other side of the Atlantic as part of an 11-day European tour that will see the team take on opponents in both Spain and Italy and offer an early chance to get a glimpse at head coach Joe Tartamella's squad for the 2013-2014 season.
The team and Tartamella spoke just hours before heading to the airport and the start of their European voyage, wearing customized 'STJ' t-shirts with the Italy, Spain and United States flag emblazoned within the letters.
"Our players are looking forward to representing our University and the United States as we play four games during our travels," Tartamella said. "It will surely be an educational and inspirational experience that will hopefully produce a lifetime of memories."
The NCAA allows teams one foreign trip every four years and 10 practices prior to the squad's departure. The women's trip follows in the footsteps of the men's team, who spent two weeks in Italy, France and Spain last summer. Two other Big East squads will be packing up for Europe in the final weeks of August as well with both Marquette and defending league champ DePaul already competing in France.
"We're very excited to have the opportunity to go overseas for the first time in program history," Tartamella said. "We've had nine practices out of the ten we're allotted and we'll finish (Friday). The team is working extremely hard and it's given us an opportunity to see our young players for the first time. We also understand that we are not only representing the University, but our country as well, so we will be looking to make sure we are competing at the highest standard that we can."
The Storm begin their tour on August 16 and will remain overseas through August 27 with trips to Rome, Pesaro, Florence, Madrid and Barcelona and four total games against international competition.
The idea behind the trip is to allow the squad to immerse itself in both the European culture while also offering a brand-new level of competition that will help improve a team that finished second in Big East play at 23-11 and made a ninth NCAA Tournament appearance last season.
All of the Storm's games will be played under international rules as well and Tartamella has focused his team on speeding up its overall play during practice, even putting 20 seconds on the shot clock to move them out of the backcourt quicker.
"We're still trying to put the pieces together, but I think it gives us a better scale overall of where we are going to be in October," junior guard Danaejah Grant said. "It gives us a jump-start on the other teams that don't have this same opportunity. I think ultimately it puts us ahead of everyone else."
Perhaps most importantly though, the European tour jump-starts the college career of St. John's four incoming freshman - guard Tamesha Alexander, forward Imani Littleton, guard Crystal Simmons and forward Tanoia Wade.
The chance to give these four freshman valuable playing time even before the season starts accelerates what would otherwise be a steep learning curve and gives the Storm the chance to integrate this season's recruiting class into the gameplan before the Big East game schedule has even been released.
"For our freshmen it will be a great opportunity to show us what they have," Tartamella said. "They'll play almost as many minutes as our upper-classmen out of necessity because our bench will be four freshmen and a senior. They are going to get an opportunity whether they are ready or not. I think they'll be ready. These kids have been fearless in what they have been doing."
Part of that freshman class includes Simmons, a Madrid native who comes to St. John's ranked as the No. 24 guard by ESPN HoopGurlz. A three-star recruit, Simmons is also a former teammate of current Red Storm junior Sandra Udobi and while the entire squad is certainly excited for the trip, the return home strikes a particular chord with Simmons.
"We are excited to feature one of Spain's homegrown talents in Crystal Simmons as she will play in front of all her friends and family when we take the floor in Madrid," said Tartamella. "She's extremely excited and it's probably one of the first opportunities that a kid from Madrid gets to come back and play in their hometown from a University in the U.S."
The Storm will arrive in Rome first and according to the team's itinerary will take in some of the more historic sights the city has to offer on Sunday before playing their first game against the Dutch National Team on Monday night.
In addition to the Dutch, the Storm will square off against the Adriatic Sea Sirens, Distrito Olimpico Madrid and CB Barcelona Saint Feliuenc.
While the trip is certainly focused around basketball and the squad is anxious to get on the court, the tour is about more than just putting up good statistics for St. John's. This is a major opportunity for the team, one that hasn't previously been available to the program, and, without crossing into motivational-speak, it's one the Storm isn't going to waste.
"We are working on our communication," senior forward Amber Thompson said. "After adding some new players, we need to figure out the best way to play with them. This trip is going to give us a jump start playing as a team."