PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas– Top-ranked Kentucky is looking to make the Atlantis Resort here a home away from home.
The Wildcats, who took a foreign tour here two years ago to play exhibition games against three FIBA teams, have scheduled a ESPN game against Arizona State here at 7 p.m. Monday night at the 3,900-seat Imperial Ballroom. Wildcats’ Hall of Fame coach John Calipari says he plans on playing a game like this in this tropical setting every season and scheduling future foreign tours on a regular basis at the resort
It is another way of setting this elite program apart from the competition and give Cats’ fans who have been known to travel an exclusive inside look at the Commonwealth’s team by allowing them to watch a live hour long pre-game practice Sunday and have group pictures taken with the team.
Welcome to CATlantis.
Calipari has built a perennial national contender by constantly reloading with blue chip freshmen and then preparing to declare for the NBA draft after one year of college. No one does it better.
Calipari has recruited almost an entirely new roster of McDonald’s All Americans every season. He has had 28 players drafted into the NBA in seven years at the Blue Grass, including three No. 1 overall picks– guard John Wall and centers Anthony Davis and Karl Anthony Towns– and 14 lottery picks.
Most come because of Calipari’s track record for producing NBA first round draft picks. NCAA championships are important to the Big Blue nation. But million dollar contracts mean more to prospects he signs. This year, Kentucky has three freshmen– forward Bam Adebayo and guards De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk– who likely be first round picks. Improved sophomore guard Isiaah Briscoe could also leave, too. Three seniors– forward Derek Willis and guards Dominique Hawkins and Mychal Mulder– will graduate, forcing Calipari to restock his roster, again.
“I may have to replace seven, eight players again this year,” he admitted.
For now, he wants to enjoy the moment. Kentucky may not be the best team in college basketball, but they may have a higher ceiling than anyone, including Duke, Carolina and Villanova. The Cats can go 10 deep. This group is hard working and quick to grasp concepts. The 6-3 Monk, a legitimate three point shooter, is already an NBA caliber scorer. The Cats best is definitely yet to come, too, once their stars like the 6-10 Adebayo begin to take over games and Fox, who has the potential to average double figure assists, begins making mid-range jumper by the start of SEC season.
“I don’t have to use board as much,” Calipari said. “This is a smart team. Guys move on dime mentally, not just physically. When you’re coaching guys who are 17, 18, 19 years old, they need affirmation. You correct then but you also need to affirm when doing good. You don’t need to butt kick when you have extreme talent, smart, good kids. Why do I need to do that?. People saying we’re winning by biggest margin of victory since 1947. At times, I want closer games. I want to shoot 32 percent and win the game. It’s important for them to know you don’t have to make every shot to win the game. this is long season. We’re only six games in. We have 24, 25 games left before tournament times. I want to see how we do when down 10, 15 points. This is college basketball. You can lose games and still win a national title.
“The whole thing is about learning. the difference is you’re coaching at Kentucky and they expect you to win every game.by 28, 30 points. I don’t respond to it I just know how learn from this, like who can make a foul throw, who can make an inbounds passer against the press.”
The journey can be stressful on both the coach and the players, which is why Calipari has been careful about the way he schedules. He is not afraid to challenge his team with a difficult non-league schedule. The Cats (6-0) have already played Michigan State in the Garden and have upcoming games against ASU, UCLA, a game at North Carolina in Vegas and a road game at Louisville, all before Christmas. But he resists playing any three game tournaments any more with a young team.
“We’re doing something that’s never been done before,” Calipari said. “Every team is so young, you can’t go play two, three, four tough games early in the season. in a row in a tournament. I just can’t do it. Now. other teams can do it. I’m not saying it’s bad. But other teams have gotten caught because they have young guys and they’re playing in those events. I have nothing against the events. i’m done it my whole career. We played in Maui, Rainbow, the Great Alaskan Shootout twice. Been everywhere. But I am not coaching all freshmen and the teams we have coming up– Arizona State, UCLA, Valparaiso, North Carolina, Louisville, Kansas. We’re playing them all. We’re just playing them all We’re just not playing them Nov. 15.
”So to be able to come down here. I’d like to play a game here every year. Get our fans who want to travel to be around our team, attend an open practice. So we get a chance to travel, but not play back to back to back against teams. We’re just not ready to do that yet. This is a perfect location for us. It is just a two hour charter flight from our campus and we’re in a different world. It’s all self contained. The court is within the facility. And the players get to enjoy themselves in the water park.”
Dick Weiss is a sportswriter and columnist who has covered college football and college and professional basketball for the Philadelphia Daily News and the New York Daily News for 40 years. He has also co-written seven books with Rick Pitino, John Calipari, Dick Vitale and authored a tribute book on Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.