He has changed teams and changed conferences. He needs to adjust to new teammates, new coaches and a new system. A college graduate, he must relate to freshmen and sophomores. He’s being asked to change his playing style and lose weight. Then there’s the culture shock associated with moving from the West Coast to the Bluegrass, from Stanford and its reputation as one of the world’s top academic institutions to Kentucky and, as we’re reminded before every home game, “the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball.”
Oh yeah, and he’s also expected to lead Kentucky to a national championship by providing the kind of veteran leadership its teams often lack.
Has any player ever faced a greater challenge than Reid Travis does in the 2018-19 season?
“When you put it in that perspective, it does sound like a big load,” his father, Nate Travis, said recently.
But the elder Travis and others say the challenge is not too big.
As paradoxical as it might sound, Travis has been adjusting to new circumstances and leading for a long time. From middle school to high school to Stanford and now to Kentucky. He changed AAU teams after his sophomore year of high school.
Quarterback of the high school football team. Three-year captain of the high school basketball team.
“He was always the kid they looked up to in the community,” his father said of Reid’s upbringing in Minneapolis. “So a lot of things come naturally. I’m sure he does it without giving it a thought.”
Here’s a question: Do the expectations of the Big Blue Nation translate into pressure?
“Not too much,” Travis said this past summer. He cited his three seasons as captain of Stanford’s teams as good preparation.
But, of course, Stanford and Kentucky are as different as Silicon Valley and the Bourbon Trail. This difference is not lost on Travis.
“I’m in a place now where basketball is in the center,” he said. “People love Kentucky basketball. Everywhere I go people want pictures and autographs.
“When I was at Stanford, it was a little more toned down. You have Olympians and you have people starting the next great company. Those are the ones that have the celebrity. So I felt like the small fish when I was on that campus. Then you kind of switch it up and come to Kentucky where you are the main attraction. You are the show.”
Unlike several of his UK teammates, Travis does not play video games. He said his parents encouraged he and his siblings to go outside and play rather than sit in front of a screen.
Nor does Travis share his teammates’ fondness for trash talking.
“He’s into the books,” Quade Green said. “Hey, he’s a school guy. He loves school. That’s his DNA.”
Not that Travis finds it difficult to relate to his UK teammates.
“Of course, he’s a lot more mature,” Keldon Johnson said. “He’s a lot older. He’s just us, but older. He still jokes around with us. It’s not like he doesn’t talk to us.”
Some of his UK teammates have given Travis a nickname, the universal sign of acceptance. They call him “Old Head.”
Travis had been on both sides of this age difference. As a freshman at Stanford, he learned from older teammates. Later, as the captain, he tutored incoming freshmen.
When it comes to leadership, Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes dismissed the importance of shared interests. The leader and his followers do not need to bowl or go to the movies together, he said.
“I don’t think you have to hang out with guys,” Barnes said. “I don’t think that matters. He’ll figure out what he needs to do because the most important thing in leadership is transparency.”
‘One great pickup’
At SEC Media Day, Travis said the biggest adjustment he had to make was losing weight. He came to Kentucky at about 260 pounds, and has trimmed down to about 235. This has helped his transition from a power player to a more versatile player with face-the-basket skills.
Not so coincidentally, scouts advised Travis to become a better perimeter player when he entered his name in this year’s NBA Draft and went through the pre-draft process. During UK’s August trip to the Bahamas, he acknowledged sometimes reverting to a power game.
“He’s a really good low-post player,” Mississippi State Coach Ben Howland said of Travis. “He’s a real problem down low. . . . so he’s going to be a real load for anybody in our league to contend with. That’s one great pickup for Kentucky to get him late.”
It hasn’t been a seamless transition. In the first game in the Bahamas, Travis looked like a player still searching to find a comfortable niche. UK Coach John Calipari said Travis reverted to gathering himself into a crouch before trying to explode to the basket.
“It’s really a transition from the way I’ve played my whole career as far as more of a bully-ball system, putting the ball down and trying to get into people’s chests,” Travis said after that game. “Now, they’re asking me to go up and catch lobs, get blocks and just run the court as fast as I can. . . . I reverted back to some old habits.”
After the game, Calipari good-naturedly teased Travis about his play.
“‘Reid, it was like you were a freshman,’” Calipari said he told Travis. “First time out. You can’t believe this environment.’ But, I said, ‘You’re going to be fine.’”
Travis showed steady progress in the Bahamas. He averaged a double-double in the four games. He even made two of three three-point shots in the fourth and final game. He then made his only attempt from beyond the arc in the Blue-White Game.
“That was a process I started two years ago to getting more comfortable on the perimeter,” he said.
Pressure to lead?
Rene Pulley, a family friend, said that the affinity to prepare creates confidence that Travis can meet the challenge this season presents.
“Honestly, what’s being asked of him is only fair,” Pulley said. “And I really do believe Reid is up to the challenge. He’s been mentally prepared for this for a couple years.”
Travis has been pointing to the NBA for several years. Pulley described getting a degree from Stanford as Travis’ way to thanking Stanford for the opportunity to be challenged in the classroom and on the court.
After entering this year’s NBA Draft and deciding it would be best to improve as a player in another season of college basketball, Travis decided to transfer to Kentucky. Of course, UK has produced 19 lottery picks in Calipari’s time as coach.
“It was a blessing that Coach Cal said there was a spot for me, and if I wanted to come, it would be a great fit,” Travis said.
Pulley acknowledged the challenge that Travis faces.
“He has to be more mentally strong and prepared to accept the pressure of going to Kentucky,” he said before adding, “which is damned near going to the NBA.”
Pulley described UK as the “perfect opportunity” for Travis and his younger teammates. They can help each other.
“He doesn’t have to do everything for these kids,” Pulley said of Travis. “It’s not like Calipari went out there and got a bunch of third-graders that are playing intramural basketball.”