High School Basketball

Team basketball fueling Kentucky Travelers' resurgence

Holmes sophomore James Bolden scored over Madison Central's Daniel Parke.
Holmes sophomore James Bolden scored over Madison Central's Daniel Parke. Herald-Leader

When officials with the Travelers Basketball club decided last fall to move the program to Kentucky after more than two decades in Tennessee, their reasoning was simple.

There was more young talent in the Bluegrass, and the Travelers needed that talent to compete in the grueling Elite Youth Basketball League.

The Nike-sponsored team had enjoyed great success in Tennessee with players such as Ron Mercer, Corey Brewer and Vincent Yarbrough. But recent years have been rough.

The Travelers went 2-18 in 2012, when only two of the 40 teams in the EYBL had a worse record.

The move was made, and the program restocked with kids from Kentucky.

So far, the results have been better than just about anyone expected.

The Travelers wrapped up the second session of EYBL play over the weekend with a 5-4 record, and they're sitting just one game out of first place in their 10-team division.

That's quite the turnaround from a year ago.

"The difference is I think they have more young talent," said Scout.com analyst Evan Daniels. "What I saw from that team is they play really well together. They play team basketball."

Still, there are no top-100 recruits that play for the Travelers, unlike the majority of the teams they compete against. They have no five-star recruits like Cliff Alexander or Tyus Jones that can take over a game, seemingly at will.

What the Travelers do have is that sense of team basketball, something often missing on the spring and summer circuits.

College coaches marveled at the way they played together over the weekend in Hampton, Va. It was just the second session of games for a team that had practiced only four times together before debuting in Los Angeles earlier this month.

The bond was formed almost instantly.

"Everybody connects," said Travelers forward Justin Johnson. "We don't have one selfish player. We'll have four guys that go out and will be in double digits. We never have one guy that stands out and has 30. It's just a really good group of guys."

To back up Johnson's point: In the nine EYBL games so far, seven different players have led the Travelers in scoring.

"We have a lot of guys with a lot of high IQ," said Travelers Coach Andre Mahorn. "You've also got a lot of guys that play basketball, and they know how to play. That's important."

The 10-man roster was down to nine in Virginia after Lafayette star Jackson Davis couldn't make the trip due to back spasms that resulted from a hard fall during a game the week before in Los Angeles.

Three of the nine Travelers that played over the weekend were sub-6-foot point guards: Southwestern junior David Kapinga, Holmes sophomore James "Beetle" Bolden and Perry Central freshman Braxton Beverly.

At times, Mahorn even played all three together. The "high IQ" that the coach spoke of goes through the roof with three heady point guards on the floor at the same time.

"It's a three-headed monster. A lot of these teams don't have that luxury, and we do," Mahorn said. "We try to maximize each one of those guys every time we can. With that lineup — it's scary, because they're so little. But, those guys, their hearts are big, so I can live with that."

There has been a lot of sacrifice so far with this Travelers squad.

Bolden already has scholarship offers from schools like Xavier and Purdue — UK coaches John Calipari and Orlando Antigua even stopped by to watch him at one point last weekend — but it was Beverly who started all five games in Virginia.

Bringing such a highly recruited player off the bench might be a political problem with some summer teams.

That hasn't been the case with the Travelers.

"We have a lot of good kids," said team director Andy Rines. "They're high-character kids. It's not been much of a struggle to get them to play together, because they really like each other."

Continued success could mean a berth in the Nike Peach Jam, a July event in North Augusta, S.C., that features the top 24 EYBL teams.

A .500 record is usually enough to get a team to Peach Jam, and that's the summer destination for which the Travelers are aiming.

"If we're playing like we did (Sunday), we can get anybody," Johnson said. "We're going to keep working hard and see where it takes us."