An early opportunity to gauge strengths and weaknesses three months before the season? Sure, why not.

For the University of South Dakota men’s basketball team, though, that means traveling north of the border for a weekend series.

The Coyotes will get that chance this weekend, as they will play three exhibition games in Canada. USD will face the University of Winnipeg on Friday and Saturday, and then will travel to the University of Manitoba on Sunday.

“With all the new guys, this is good to get us ready,” junior center Trevor Gruis said Monday. “You can tell the chemistry is a lot higher leading up to the trip. In all the practices, the guys brought energy.”

The program had planned to schedule an international trip this year, assistant coach Joey James said, and had examined options in Vancouver, Toronto and the Bahamas. An NCAA rule allows schools to participate in international trips once every four years.

“This is a great opportunity for our young guys and those new guys who sat out last year, to go up there and compete and face college players,” said James, who enters his 10th season on the bench.

A trip to Canada follows a similar path taken by South Dakota State and North Dakota State over the past two years. The Jackrabbits traveled to Canada in 2010 and the Bison made the trek last year.

The team leaves today (Tuesday) for the 8.5-hour drive north on Interstate 29. They will spend parts of Wednesday and Thursday sight-seeing, and will hold their 10th pre-season practice in Canada — the limit per NCAA rules for pre-season trips.

For a team coming off a 10-18 season (5-13 in the Summit League) and with eight new faces joining the fold, such an early test could pay dividends, James said.

“It gives us a measuring stick for what we need to work on once we get back,” he said.

Each of the last two seasons, the Coyotes opened their season at the University of Nebraska — no doubt a tough barometer right out of the gate.

“The past few years, we’ve rolled into Nebraska but we weren’t sure where we really were,” Gruis said. “It’s nice to see some other teams and gauge yourself that way.”

Of the 15 players on the roster, nine are entering their first or second year with the program. The only returning starter is Gruis, who averaged 11.3 points and 6.7 rebounds last season.

Back for the Coyotes this season will be Gruis, Jordan Boots (Sr., G), Steve Tecker (Jr., G), Brandon Bos (So., G), Jared Bartling (Jr., F), Jake Krogman (So., G) and Jack Foley (So., G).

New to the program are transfers Tyler Larson (Jr., G), Adam Thoseby (So., G) and Karim Rowson (Jr., G), as well as freshmen Casey Kasperbauer (G), Tyler Flack (F) and Eric Robertson (F).

“The nice thing about this is, we’ve been able to put in what we want to do offensively, and some of our defensive schemes,” James said. “Being able to see your team all together over those few weeks really opens your eyes to different positions.

“That opened up the door for us.”

The trip will also be a homecoming of sorts for two USD players. The 2012-13 roster boasts two native Canadians — Juevol Myles (Sr., G, Ajax, Ontario) and Bos (Markham, Ontario).

“Juevol has been really hyped about it lately. He knows a couple guys we’ll be playing against, so that’ll be fun for those guys,” Gruis said. “It’s kind of like when Jared (Bartling) and I play SDSU; we know some of the players.”

The Coyotes open their season Nov. 14 at the Global Sports Showcase in Laramie, Wyo. Over the weekend tournament, USD will play Southern, Wyoming and North Carolina Central.

The pre-season practices, combined with a new NCAA rule, have allowed the Coyotes extra time together. A new NCAA rule, enacted this year, allowed coaches two hours a day and eight hours a week to work with players.

Each time, the focus was clear, Gruis said.

“I don’t think anyone was really satisfied with our season,” he said. “They (coaches) usually remind us on a daily basis that we won 10 games, and all the guys are responding.”

Wayne State College (Neb.) is also traveling to Canada this weekend. The Wildcats will play the University of Winnipeg (Sept. 1), the University of Manitoba (Sept. 2) and Winnipeg again (Sept. 3).

The Wildcats, under head coach Paul Combs, returns four starters from a team that was 10-17 last season.

Though they will be making the same trip, the two schools did not schedule them together, James said.

“It’ll be nice to run into those guys, though,” he said. “We all have the same goals.”

(Jeremy Hoeck/Yankton Press & Dakotan)