The mere presence of full-fledged basketball practices in August isn't the oddest thing happening in Cedar Falls, Iowa, this week. Nor is it the image of the home-standing Northern Iowa Panthers, who will be representing the United States at the World University Games in Bangkok, Thailand, from Aug. 7-18, decked out in USA Basketball gear rather than their familiar purple and gold.
For those who have watched the preternaturally patient Panthers play the past few years, the most shocking sight must be seeing them run their offensive sets under the pressure of a 24-second shot clock.
Forget the challenges of around-the-globe travel, foreign accommodations, a lack of scouting reports on players who could be significantly older than the Panthers, and the pressure of upholding this country's long-standing dominance in this event. The biggest challenge second-year head man Ben Jacobson has had in getting his guys ready for the international competition is having 11 fewer seconds for them to find an open shot.
"In our practice sessions, [the 24-second shot clock] has been the biggest adjustment," Jacobson said. "We've had to look at some different things offensively, and our players have had to look at things a little differently. [They] have had to become more aggressive. With the 35-second shot clock, if the first play doesn't work, we can just run another set. There isn't time now. Our players had to change their mentality a little bit. We need to look at the first good opportunity to score and think about taking that."
That's a far departure from the normal Panthers approach. UNI finished last season 306th in the nation in tempo, averaging only 62.3 possessions per game -- 4.6 possessions below the national average. The difference is obvious to the players, too.
"[When practices started,] we were getting down to about to three, two, one [on the shot clock] and panicking, but now we're used to it," said rugged forward Eric Coleman, one of only three seniors returning for UNI. "We've set up a lot of late shot-clock things. Normally, late shot clock is 18, 16. Now it's eight, seven, six. You have to value the ball a lot more."
If the Panthers want to value the ball, there won't be too many better places to feed it than in the post to Coleman, who posted team highs with 13.1 points and 9.1 rebounds a game last season. And Coleman made sure to note that UNI still knows where its offensive bread is buttered.
"We're speeding our offense up a lot, [but] we still run through the post first," he chuckled.
The Panthers know this trip is more than just a typical summer junket; their USA practice duds remind them of that daily. Jacobson mentioned how different his team's preparations have been than when Northern Iowa took a summer trip to Australia four years ago -- and he expects that increased intensity to benefit his young team down the road.
"There's a different responsibility that we have in representing the United States," he said. "The playing of games, there's a different feel to it and approach to it, and that side of it we've taken very seriously. That's been our top priority. We're trying to put everything in to be prepared to represent the country to the best of our ability, and we'll see benefits from that next season, no question."
As such, the 10 days of practice allowed by NCAA rule have become a de facto preseason. The Panthers have been practicing inbounds and late-game situational plays, things that were unheard of in preparation for the Australia trip. It's also a chance for Coleman and the other seniors to quickly step into the leadership void left by departed stalwarts Grant Stout (12.6 ppg, 9.0 rpg) and Brooks McKowen (10.6 ppg, 5.8 apg).
Both players were late additions to the team headed to Thailand, but they were added to provide depth and will likely not be the focal points of the team.
We're trying to put everything in to be prepared to represent the country to the best of our ability, and we'll see benefits from that next season, no question.
"As a senior, it's important to get the younger guys to realize this isn't just a trip out of the country to play some games. It's a lot more serious than that," Coleman said. "Our coaches have done a good job [instilling that mind-set]."
As thoroughly as UNI prepared for this trip, it will be hard-pressed to live up to past American standards in the event. The United States has won 55 of its past 56 games and has an all-time mark of 125-7 in the 18 previous events, which occur once every two years. Those teams, though, were all-star squads, not Missouri Valley outfits that finished .500 in league play last season and suffered significant graduation losses. Meanwhile, UNI will play at least six games against opponents that will feature elite young national team prospects. Home games against Evansville and Illinois State, it's not.
Despite the challenges, the Panthers jumped at the chance to represent the country after USA Basketball -- due to an overcrowded summer schedule that included the Under-19 world championship, Pan Am Games and the upcoming Olympic qualifying tournament -- opted not to compile a team for the University Games.
"It all happened really fast because of USA Basketball," said Craig Jonas, a marketing consultant for Basketball Travelers, Inc., which is organizing the trip. "[The Panthers] were the first one to respond. The opportunity is tremendous for their program, in my opinion."
Win or lose in the Far East, Northern Iowa will have a nice jump-start to its 2007-08 campaign, and the Panthers just might pick up a couple of things it can use during the season.
"Some of the teams we play against are very experienced and have been put together for a long time," Jacobson said. "There are so many more late shot-clock situations, my hope is that we can pick up something we can run later in the season from the teams we play against, or the teams we see."
Come September, Missouri Valley coaches may have to start looking for tapes of Angola.
Andy Glockner is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage and is the host of the ESPNU College Basketball Insider podcast.