Calipari's Dominican team not foreign to Kentucky fans

Calipari's Dominican team not foreignto Kentucky fans

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistAugust 3, 2011 

It was Kentucky basketball assistant coach Orlando Antigua who picked up Charlie Villanueva, the former Connecticut star, at the Lexington airport.

"I had to get on him real quick about that loss," Villanueva said, referring to April, when the Huskies beat Antigua's Wildcats 56-55 at the Final Four in Houston and UConn went on to claim the national championship. "I was teasing those guys a little bit, even Coach Cal a little bit."

Coach Cal being John Calipari, the Kentucky coach who in his second job as coach of the Dominican Republic National Team has organized practices for the next two weeks in Lexington where, well, let's just say some of the Dominican players never expected to be.

"I tweeted out that I was going to be here," said Al Horford, the former Florida center. "And I didn't get a very warm reception."

"I've been trying my best to stay at the hotel," said former Louisville guard Edgar Sosa. "I haven't left the hotel too much."

"I never thought that in a million years, especially coming from UConn," Villanueva said when asked whether he thought he'd be practicing on a UK practice floor. "They don't like us too much up here."

But that's the thing about national competition, it's supposed to bridge many worlds.

It has here, starting with Calipari, a marquee American collegiate basketball coach directing an assortment of players, some of them pros, some of them aspiring pros, and at least one well-known — in these parts — collegian in Eloy Vargas, who are from a country many miles away.

And there on the floor of the Joe Craft Center was the makings of the DRNT, which hopes to qualify for the Olympics for the first time in the country's history.

That would bring attention to a second-division sport inside the country.

"We're known for baseball," Villanueva said of the Dominican. "But a lot more people are paying attention (to basketball) because Coach Cal is coaching."

Around these basketball-mad parts, they are paying a lot of attention to that Aug. 15 exhibition game between the "Kentucky Pros" and the DRNT, a tilt that will feature eight ex-UK players now in the NBA and has already sold out Rupp Arena.

On Monday, former UK center DeMarcus Cousins was already talking trash about how he had never lost a game in Rupp and he wasn't about to start now.

"I know it's gonna be a battle just because I'm there," said former U of L guard Francisco Garcia, who is teammates with Cousins on the Sacramento Kings. "I hope he's in shape because we're getting in shape ourselves."

The Dominicans have no hope that even with Calipari as their coach, they might be the fan favorites come Aug. 15, however.

"Definitely, when we go out there, we're going to get booed," said Sosa, who hit the winning shot when Louisville beat UK in 2009 at Freedom Hall. "We're pretty much playing against some of the best players to ever suit up in a UK uniform, and we know that. It's definitely going to be a road game for us."

Said Calipari, "I'm just hoping I don't get booed."

Ah, but since the Huskies won the national title last season, beating Kentucky twice along the way, one Dominican just might have to show off a little UConn apparel around town during his stay.

"One time," Villanueva said. "At least one time."

■ Ticketmaster.com on Tuesday listed an upcoming ticket sale for a second exhibition game between the two teams on Aug. 16 in the KFC Yum Center in Louisville. But DeWayne Peevy, the media coordinator for the event in Rupp Arena, said Tuesday night that he had no knowledge of a second game.

Reach John Clay at 859-231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com. Check out his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/johnclayhl. Follow him on twitter at @johnclayiv.

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