One year removed from advancing to the premier event on the summer basketball circuit, the Lexington-based Travelers will make their season debut Friday night in Sacramento, Calif.
The Nike-sponsored squad is made up of many of the best rising high school seniors and juniors in the state. Under the direction of second-year coach Andre Mahorn, they'll play in California, Texas, Virginia and Minnesota over the next few weeks.
The 40-team Elite Youth Basketball League will be whittled down to the top 24 teams by July, when those squads will meet in South Carolina for the Nike Peach Jam finals.
The Travelers — against the expectations of just about everyone — made it to Peach Jam last year, their first in Kentucky after more than two decades based in Tennessee.
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Before the move to the Bluegrass, the Travelers were struggling to win at all, let alone enough to advance to Nike's version of the NCAA Tournament.
Outside expectations were low again last year for a team that included zero top-100 recruits in a circuit that has at least one top-25 prospect on just about every team.
"We knew one thing: We knew that we didn't have those top-tier, five-star recruits," Mahorn said. "But we just told our kids that that doesn't matter. What matters is us, and how we come out and play. And we keep selling that, from day one. We tell them that it's not about an individual.
"We, as coaches, bought into that philosophy. And they have too. They get it."
Last year's team was one victory away from making the Peach Jam quarterfinals. Four players from that squad are back for another run at the elite EYBL competition.
Trinity forward Ray Spalding, Holmes guard James "Beetle" Bolden and Knott Central guard Camron Justice are the likely frontrunners for Kentucky Mr. Basketball honors next season.
Along with Perry Central point guard Braxton Beverly — a rising junior — they'll provide a strong group of guys who know what the EYBL is all about.
"It's big-time," Mahorn said. "They've been through the grind of it, and we know going forward that those guys can step up and be leaders right away. They won't be caught up in that shock and awe of playing against (big-name recruits). They're hungry. And they're trying to get those other guys to be hungry and grind like they do."
This year's Travelers roster will also include Owen County's Carson Williams, Ballard's Jalen Perry, Lexington Christian's Matt Rose, Louisville Trinity's Christian Thieneman, Manual's Dwayne Sutton, Newport Catholic's Drew McDonald and West Virginia native Harrison Brown.
LCA's Brad Calipari — the son of Kentucky Coach John Calipari — is also on the team and will travel, but he's still recovering from a serious knee injury and it's unlikely he'll be back in time to play this summer.
Mahorn acknowledged that the Travelers won't have a ton of size this spring, but he likes his team's versatility. He also likes the attitude, which sounds similar to last year's team-first approach.
"I'm excited, because they've bought into it," he said. "They've bought into that grind. I just hope it translates into the games."
One of the few laments from last year's impressive run was that the Travelers didn't get to play a tournament in Kentucky.
That changes this year.
Local fans will be able to see the in-state stars July 23-26 at the AAU Super Showcase in Louisville, a national event that was previously held in Florida and always attracts the nation's top college coaches.
"For us, to finally be home will be nice," Mahorn said. "It will give those guys a chance to finally be seen near their hometowns. It'll be good."