Travelers Basketball Club to test local players against nation's best

broberts@herald-leader.comMarch 15, 2013 

Starting this weekend, a new brand of basketball is coming to Kentucky.

The Nike-sponsored Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL) has been the summer home to such prep stars as Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Nerlens Noel, Andrew Wiggins and Julius Randle in recent years.

On Saturday, the Travelers Basketball club will hold its first practice in Lexington — the team's new headquarters — and officially become the first EYBL team to be based in Kentucky.

The Travelers are moving north after a quarter century in Tennessee, where Ron Mercer, Corey Brewer and Vincent Yarbrough were among its most notable players.

The team's director, Andy Rines, said the decision to relocate to Kentucky was made last fall.

"We had 25 great years in Tennessee. But for the past three or four years, the talent level in the east and middle part of the state has been on the decline," Rines said. "It's probably at its lowest point since we've been in operation."

According to EYBL rules, a team must primarily consist of players from its state of operation. Each team is allowed to have three out-of-state players, but they must come from a bordering state.

As Tennessee's talent pool dwindled in recent years, Rines and other team officials started scouting Kentucky to fill out their roster.

"Once we got up here, we realized the talent in Kentucky right now is much better than what's in Tennessee," he said. "That gave us the idea to make the move."

The Travelers' leading scorer and rebounder last year was Lexington Catholic forward Jack Whitman, who will play his college ball at William & Mary.

This year, the Travelers will field an EYBL team and a 16-and-under team. Seventeen of the 21 total players on the rosters are from Kentucky.

The EYBL squad includes Holmes point guard James "Beetle" Bolden, who wowed a couple of Rupp Arena crowds with his performances during last week's Sweet Sixteen.

Lafayette forward Jackson Davis, Knott Central guard Camron Justice and Dixie Heights guard Brandon Hatton are also on the team, which will be coached by former Vanderbilt player Brendan Plavich.

The 16-and-under roster includes three Lexington high schoolers — Catholic's Tanner Johnson, LCA's Matt Rose and Lafayette's Shon Wright.

Holmes Coach Jason Booher, who led Shelby Valley to a Sweet Sixteen title in 2010, hopes the arrival of the Travelers means good things for high school basketball in the state.

"I was excited to hear that they were coming to Kentucky," Booher said. "I think we're seeing Kentucky high school basketball back up on the rise. Hopefully their shift from Tennessee to Kentucky is another sign of that.

"They'll get a taste of what the best is all about, and they'll have some humbling experiences, I'm sure."

The competition will be stiff.

Class of 2014 prospects Tyus Jones, Emmanuel Mudiay, Jahlil Okafor, Stanley Johnson and Trey Lyles all have UK scholarship offers and all are expected to play on the EYBL circuit again this year.

"The competition is second to none," Rines said. "You've got 80, 85 percent of the best high school players in the country in the league. ... From the kids' standpoint, the competition is the best and the exposure is the best."

The Travelers — one of 40 EYBL teams from the United States and Canada — will play 20 regular-season games at stops in Los Angeles; Hampton, Va.; Minneapolis and Dallas.

The top 24 teams at the conclusion of the regular season are sent to the Nike Peach Jam finals in South Carolina, where just about every top college coach in the country will be waiting.

Last year's Peach Jam championship game featured a matchup between teams led by Wiggins and fellow UK recruit Aaron Gordon.

"The goal is to make the Peach Jam. If you do that, your season is the ultimate success," Rines said. "But the one thing that's different about the EYBL is there are no easy games. Even the worst teams are really good."

The team plans to hold two-a-day practices every Saturday until the end of the school year.

The first EYBL game of 2013 will be played April 19 in Los Angeles, and that will mark the start of a new chapter for the Travelers basketball program.

"We've played Tyus Jones since he was in ninth grade, and it never gets easy," Rines said. "But that's the fun of it too, just knowing that every game is so highly competitive. And these kids are competitors, so I think that's what they want."

Travelers Basketball Club

EYBL roster

Player Class High school

James Bolden 2015 Holmes

Jackson Davis 2014 Lafayette

Brandon Hatton 2014 Dixie Heights

Justin Johnson 2014 Perry Central

Camron Justice 2015 Knott Central

David Kapinga 2014 Southwestern

Rob Marberry 2014 Franklin Road

Academy (Tenn.)

Zack McCormick 2014 Turpin (Ohio)

Ray Spalding 2015 Louisville Trinity

Jeff Thomas 2014 Norwalk (Ohio)

16-and-under roster

Tyler Bacon 2015 Bullitt East

Braxton Beverly 2016 Perry Central

Isaiah Collier 2015 Southwestern

Shelby Combs 2016 Montgomery Co.

Quentin Goodin 2016 Taylor Co.

Tanner Johnson 2015 Lexington Catholic

Drew McDonald 2015 Newport Catholic

Jalen Perry 2015 Ballard

Yalen Reed 2016 Lebanon (Tenn.)

Matt Rose 2015 Lexington Christian

Christian Thieneman2015 Louisville Trinity

Shon Wright 2015 Lafayette

Ben Roberts: (859) 231-3216Twitter: @NextCatsBlog:

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