In the glorious summer of 2014, Kentucky’s basketball players were afforded the opportunity to stick their toes in the ocean, put their seats in the sand and bond over a bottle of SPF 50 in the Bahamas.
Oh yeah, the Cats played a little basketball there, too.
Afterward, John Calipari couldn’t stop talking about the unique benefits of team travel. In need of a way to blend his grizzled veterans (i.e. sophomores) with yet another crop of A-list recruits, the Kentucky coach pointed to the Bahamas as a key to his team’s 38-0 run, which only a series of bizarre shot-clock violations kept from possible perfection. Calipari said every team should have the opportunity to give summer travel a try.
So, in 2015, if Louisville did not specifically take the advice of a rival coach, the Cardinals at least followed a similar flight plan.
“Puerto Rico,” Damion Lee said.
This was Wednesday night, after the 11-1 Cards had crushed Utah Valley 98-68 at the KFC Yum Center in their final tuneup for Saturday’s game at Kentucky. The question was, with no fewer than seven newcomers on Rick Pitino’s roster for 2015-16, how did the Cards jell so quickly?
“(Puerto Rico) helped big-time,” Trey Lewis said.
That foreign trip let us see what each other’s strengths and weaknesses are and gave us time to jell together. It showed us what we can do to move forward.
Louisville guard Damion Lee
The two are running mates, a pair of graduate transfer guards who have been the unquestioned key to Louisville’s successful start. Lee arrived from Drexel. Lewis came from Cleveland State by way of North Carolina State. Each can handle the ball, and each can score, and together the duo had to find a way to fit with sophomore point guard Quentin Snider.
‘We just clicked,’ Snider said Wednesday.
Louisville spent an August week in San Juan. The Cards played seven games in five days. They played one game in a gym with no running water and a court so wet the Louisville managers spent pregame continually wiping the floor with towels. Didn’t matter. Old Cards got to know new Cards and vice versa. Pitino brought a trove of game film back to his office. It was all worth it.
“That foreign trip let us see what each other’s strengths and weaknesses are and gave us time to jell together,” Lee said. “It showed us what we can do to move forward.”
“It was more about spending time with each other than anything,” Lewis said.
In watching Louisville wallop Mark Pope’s Wolverines on Wednesday, one was struck by how well the Cards moved the basketball. True, the competition wasn’t exactly stiff, but Pitino’s team’s passing, especially interior passing, was textbok for the most part.
“Puerto Rico told me that they are unselfish,” Pitino said. “It’s such a new team, but they look for each other so much. They shoot it well. They pass it well. If we could ever get to the stage where we were last year defensively, we’re going to be a darn good basketball team.”
Kentucky was forced into a stay-cation this past summer. Despite Calipari’s protests, NCAA rules limit the number of foreign trips a college athletic program can take. Given the constant turnover of his roster, Calipari would love to make such discovery missions annual events.
Thus far, this Kentucky team seems in search of a bonding agent. It’s not that the Cats haven been selfish. Their assist-to-field goal percentage rate of 49 percent is higher than U of L’s 47.5. It’s just this feeling that all the parts have yet to link together in a chain.
“We’re still trying to figure this thing out,” has been a Calipari mantra through November and now pretty much all of December.
Meanwhile, Louisville has another important trip on its immediate itinerary. The destination might be a lot closer than Puerto Rico, but Saturday’s task at Rupp Arena is more important.
Someone asked Lewis whether Saturday — and the ACC schedule that follows — was the reason he left a mid-major to finish his career at a high-profile program.
“Yes,” the guard said with a knowing smile. “That was one of the reasons.”