UK basketball notebook: Extra practice time outweighs ocean breezes for coaches in Bahamas

Herald-Leader staff writerJune 21, 2014 

In terms of basketball significance, the most important part of Kentucky's August trip to the Bahamas surely won't happen anywhere near swaying palm trees, the rhythmic crashing of surf, sweet ocean breezes or inside the cozy confines of Nassau's G.L. Isaacs National Gymnasium (seating capacity 2,500).

Several coaches taking teams to the Bahamas said the 10 extra days of practice the NCAA allows in preparation for such trips far outweighs the importance of the games.

"Oh, no doubt about it," said Sean Woods, who will take his Morehead State team to the Bahamas for three games. "No doubt about it. That's the most important part."

Morehead State's opponents — Grand Bahamas All-Stars (Aug. 9), Real Deal Shockers (Aug. 10) and Pyramid Food Rockets (Aug. 11) — are a mystery. To which Woods shrugs.

"That's just part of it," he said. "When you go to these deals, you don't know who you're playing."

Nor do you especially care.

Cincinnati Coach Mick Cronin wishes the NCAA allowed teams to go on such trips every summer rather than once every four years. Not because he's a sun worshiper. Nor does he possess an unquenchable thirst for competition. He just wants to take advantage of the extra practice.

"I look at it like spring football," he said. "... Spring football is not about the spring game. That's more for your fans."

The coaches spoke of the trips helping strengthen team unity. The players can become better acquainted with one another. They can get a better understanding of the coaches and intensity required. The coaches can gain a better sense of what players can and can't do. That all happens in the practices.

NCAA rules prohibit college teams from playing each other on these trips. Cronin wished aloud that Kentucky, North Carolina, Cincinnati and other college teams in the Bahamas in August could at least scrimmage against each other.

Cronin, whose team plays a Bahamian professional team while in Nassau from August 12-17, dismissed the notion of needing to win games in August.

"You always try to build excitement, but, no," he said. "Zero. I'm not looking to win anything but games during the season."

Familiar face

When in the Bahamas, UK can expect to see a familiar face: Eloy Vargas.

As a senior, Vargas was a member of UK's 2012 national championship team. In August, he expects to be in the Bahamas and playing against Kentucky as a member of the Dominican Republic National Team.

"Well, I think it's going to be fun," he said last week. Vargas likened the experience to transferring to a new college and then playing against your former team.

Last week found Vargas in Santiago, where his professional team was playing in the Dominican playoffs. During the winter, he played for a team in Spain.

"I don't have anything to prove," he said of playing against Kentucky. He said he just wants to do his part and contribute to the team.

Noting that the Dominican coach is former UK assistant Orlando Antigua, Vargas jokingly said, "It'll be nice to see the Kentucky fans rooting for both teams (pause) because I know they won't do it. They only root for one team."

Vargas expects Kentucky to be formidable. "They've got the best team in the country," he said.

Vargas is familiar with one Kentucky freshman, fellow Dominican Karl Towns.

"He's pretty good," Vargas said of the 7-footer. "Real big. He can handle the ball, shoot threes. He can do a lot of things."

As the telephone conversation neared its end, Vargas asked a favor.

"Tell the Big Blue Nation that Eloy misses them," he said.

UK opponents

UK's opponents in the Bahamas in August are:

■ The Dominican Republic National Team on Aug. 14 and Aug. 17. Many familiar names are possible, starting with Coach Orlando Antigua, the former UK assistant. The roster won't be finalized until after workouts at South Florida, where Antigua is the new coach, on Aug. 1-8, and then in Santo Domingo on Aug. 8-11.

Players expected to make the team include former Louisville stars Francisco Garcia and Edgar Sosa. Al Horford, the former Florida star, is injured and not expected to participate.

The Dominican team should be the best opponent UK's trip can offer. The games in the Bahamas serve as a warm-up for the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain Aug. 30-Sept. 14.

■ Champagne Chalons-Reims on Aug. 11 and Aug. 15 or 16. The team will advance to France's top division next season. That means bigger budget, better players and more Americans. The team is like the old Kansas City-Omaha Kings. It has two homes: Reims and Chalons-en-Champagne. No matter the outcome in the Bahamas and next season, the team can return to either home to celebrate or drown its sorrows with some of the best bubbly in the world.

■ Puerto Rico Reserve Aug. 10 and 12. The roster won't be finalized for several weeks. Spokesman Fernando Quinones said he expected a more talented team than either of the "second" teams sent to tournaments last season.

'Amazing'

With his college contemporaries long past their playing days, Tim Duncan continues to excel at the highest level. Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs winning the NBA title last week led to a question: What did Kentucky players who played against him in the 1996 NCAA Tournament think of Duncan's still-vibrant abilities?

"How about that, huh?" Mark Pope said. "Listen, the guy is one of the best to ever play this game, I think. So it's fun to be a player and have the chance to compete against some of the best who ever played. Certainly, he's in that category."

With that, Pope quipped, "I'm sure he says the same thing about me."

Of course, Kentucky got the best of Duncan and Wake Forest in the 1996 Midwest finals. A team effort that featured aggressive double- and triple-teaming on Duncan, helped UK win 83-63. To compare concentration levels of opposing defenses, Julius Randle got overlooked this past season.

Antoine Walker, Walter McCarty, Nazr Mohammed and Pope helped crowd Duncan.

"I think we triple-teamed when he didn't even have the ball," Pope said. "On every catch, he certainly had guys flying at him from every direction."

The game was essentially over at halftime with Kentucky ahead 38-19. In an example of too little-too late, Duncan got free for scores at times in the second half. He finished with 14 points, but took only seven shots.

"Getting post entries from on top (with Duncan) dead in the middle of the lane," Pope said of Wake Forest's adjustment to the traps. "It was harder for us to trap."

Of course, Wake having to play without point guard Tony Rutland helped UK's cause and contributed to Duncan's frustration. It's not like he didn't find other ways to contribute: 16 rebounds, six assists and four blocks.

Fast forward 18 years. Pope is an assistant coach at Brigham Young after having worked on staffs at Georgia and, coincidentally enough, Wake Forest. And Duncan is anchoring the NBA's 2014 championship team.

"It's amazing," Pope said. "I mean, that's really amazing. That's a long time ago. To think he's still playing at such an amazingly high level, that's a credit to him."

'Didn't really worry'

Ben Roberts, who covers recruiting for the Herald-Leader, attended the NBPA Top 100 Camp last week in Charlottesville, Va. He passed along this note:

Charles Matthews, UK's first commitment for the class of 2015, was asked what he thought about the reports of John Calipari possibly going to the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Los Angeles Lakers or the New York Knicks or some other pro team.

"Tell me about it," Matthews said with a laugh. "I heard so (many) rumors, and I probably get asked that all the time. 'Are you leaving because Coach Calipari's leaving?' I didn't get nervous because, you know, he's a great coach. I mean, I'm pretty sure he gets offers to leave the school every day. Until something was officially announced that he was leaving, I didn't really worry about it."

Matthews plays for St. Rita High School in Chicago, which is coached by Gary DeCesare, who formerly coached Orlando Antigua at St. Raymond High School in the Bronx. That connection was often mentioned during Matthews' recruitment and when he committed to UK. Of course, Antigua left UK for South Florida this spring.

When asked if Calipari or anyone else called to reassure him about UK, Matthews said, "No, not really. I didn't really have a problem with it. At the end of the day, Coach Cal's the head coach. I committed to Kentucky to play for Coach Calipari and not Coach Antigua. He was a great addition to it. He'll be missed, but it wasn't a factor that would make me not want to go to Kentucky anymore."

Kansas vs. the world

Kansas will represent the United States at the 2015 World University Games July 3-14 of next year in Gwangju, South Korea. The United States International University Sports Federation picked the Jayhawks to represent the country.

"We are thrilled to have this opportunity," Kansas Coach Bill Self said at a news conference last week. "It is a unique opportunity where a school will represent our country in the World University Games as opposed to a select team. I can't see anything but positives. We as an amateur basketball team could not get better competition. Our players are really excited about getting the opportunity to represent our country in games basically against professionals from around the world."

Why Kansas?

Craig Jonas, deputy head of the USA Delegation, said invitations were sent to "premier programs" in college basketball. Kentucky was one of those programs. Jonas did not say if Kentucky expressed an interest in playing in the World University Games.

Congratulations

Last week, Nebraska Wesleyan University announced the hiring of Dale Wellman as the new men's basketball coach. Earlier in his coaching career, Wellman was an assistant at Eastern Kentucky for Travis Ford. Nebraska Wesleyan's program is a member of the NAIA.

Wellman spent the past six seasons as the coach at Alfred University, an NCAA Division III school in Alfred, N.Y.

Happy birthday

To Derek Willis. He turned 19 on Saturday. ... To Ravi Moss. He turned 30 on Saturday. ... To Brandon Stockton. He turns 30 on Wednesday. ... To Dennis Felton. The former Georgia and Western Kentucky coach turned 51 on Saturday.

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Email: jtipton@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.

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