Friday, August 31, 2012

Introduction to the Kentucky Travelers



When news broke that Kentucky would be getting a Nike sponsored AAU team, the reaction was largely pleased with the usual amount of skepticism involved in AAU basketball. Now we're getting to get to know more and more about the Kentucky Travelers. Before we get to the interview with program director Andy Rines let's look at the Traveler's history.

Current Traveler coach Vincent Yarbrough was also a McDonald All-American and former Traveler player.
The Traveler's have been competing as an AAU program for 25 years, 18 of them as an officially Nike sponsored program. They're one of only 40 AAU programs to compete in the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL.) They've had 4 McDonald's All-American in their history, 6 NBA players, 26 Tennessee Mr. Basketballs, 3 AAU Runner-ups and 4 AAU Final Fours. However, despite historical success the Travelers finished 2-18 in the EYBL last year and Tennessee talent has become more and more concentrated in Memphis.

D'Angelo Russell (Left) and Quentin Snider (Right) are part of the rebirth of Kentucky high school talent.
Meanwhile the state of Kentucky is seeing somewhat of a renaissance in terms of basketball talent. The 2014, 2015 and 2016 classes are all very talented and deep. This is something the Travelers began to take notice of, as Rines said, "we realized the talent-level in Kentucky was both very good and very deep." The Travelers started thinking about the move in the Spring, and in May they approached Nike with the idea and they supported the move.



The Kentucky Travelers will be based in Lexington, although they don't have a definite venue yet. They'll definitely have a 16U and 17U team, they also could field 14U and 15U squads. The Travelers won't be having tryouts but will be using their usual "scouting" method, where they scout prospective players and offer them spots until they have filled their roster. Here's Andy on why they use the recruiting method:
"We believe the recruiting approach works best because we like to see players in high school games. This allows us to see them in pressure situations and in game conditions. We don't believe tryouts always allow the best evaluations of a player. We've never held tryouts, and we feel like our evaluation process has been very good. We've had over 200 college players, over 100 Division I signees, 24 SEC players, 5 NBA players, and 4 McDonald's All-Americans."
The Travelers have made it clear they'll be recruiting the top talent in Kentucky including D'Angelo Russell, Quentin Snider, Jordan Green, Shane Hall, etc. regardless of their affiliation to other AAU teams. Rines has this to say in terms of recruiting top talent:
"Our track record (25 years as a program, 18 years as a Nike program) is second to none. Nike Basketball and the EYBL speak for themselves. There is nothing to compare to it. Our 17u coaches (Brendan Plavich, Vincent Yarbrough) have a combined 8 years of NCAA Division I experience and 15 years of professional basketball experience as players. Once the elite players in Kentucky get to know our program and our staff, we believe it will be an easy decision for them to play with us. The elite players nation-wide want to play in the EYBL, and it should be no different in Kentucky."
Justin Johnson of the 17u Travelers 

The Travelers also have a good track record with Kentucky players. This past year on their 16U and 17U teams they filled all of their out-of-state spots with Kentucky players 6 in total. Jack Whitman (Lexington Catholic), Miles Rice (Trinity) and Justin Johnson (Sheldon Clark) on the 17U and Raymond Spalding (Trinity), Christian Thieneman (Trinity) and Camron Justice (Knott County Central) on the 16U team.

The Travelers move to Kentucky is certainly a major one and only time will tell if it works out for both Kentucky and the Travelers. But the amount of excitement it's caused already is without doubt. Andy Rines on the reaction to the move:
"The response has been overwhelming, and it's been extremely positive. We look forward to developing new relationships and continuing to build on the previous relationships we've already established. The passion for basketball in Kentucky is simply amazing."
The Travelers will have something to prove right off the bat, if they can win early in the EYBL expect them to draw even more rave reviews from Kentucky high school players, coaches and fans.

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Complete Interview with Kentucky Travelers Program Director Andy Rines:

Q.) (Donald Yaste) When did you all start thinking of moving the Travelers to Kentucky? 

A.) (Andy Rines) We starting thinking about the move to Kentucky in the Spring. As we discussed the idea among our staff and with Nike we came to the conclusion it would be a good move for us.

Q.) (DY) Why did you eventually choose to move to Kentucky?

A.) (AR) We originally came into Kentucky to recruit a few players because NCAA rules allow you to have 3 out-of-state players from a bordering state. As that process developed, we realized the talent-level in Kentucky was both very good and very deep. We had a great experience with our Kentucky players this year, and we think they had a great experience with us. As we began to develop relationships within the state, we began to realize this would be something that would enhance our program. And the talent-level in Tennessee, more than it's been in our 25 years as a program, is heavily concentrated in Memphis.

Q.) (DY) Was Nike in favor of moving the team or did you need to convince them?

A.) (AR) We approached Nike with the idea in May, then had further discussions in July. They were in favor of the idea. They have been very supportive of this move.

Q.) (DY) Did you ever consider anywhere besides Kentucky as a destination? 

A.) (AR) Kentucky was the only state we considered.

Q.) (DY) Why did you pick Lexington for your headquarters? 

A.) (AR) Lexington was chosen simply because it is a central location.

Q.) (DY) Do you know what facility you'll be using in Lexington? 

A.) (AR) We'll practice at various sites in Lexington. We are still working out those details.

Q.) (DY) What age groups will you all be having?  Will you have multiple teams for any age group?

A.) (AR) We will definitely have 16u and 17u teams. We haven't closed the door on having younger teams. Nike places such an emphasis on the two older age groups, so that's where our priorities will be. However, were are still considering a 14u and/or a 15u. We will only have one team per age group.

Q.) (DY) Do you plan on still bringing in a couple Tennessee guys for each team?

A.) (AR) Our first priority for out-of-state roster spots will be players from Tennessee. We return Rob Marberry (6-7, Nashville/Franklin Road Academy) from our 17u team last year. We will carry two or three Tennessee players on each team if they fit our needs.

Q.) (DY) Why did you all choose to go with a scouting approach rather than hold try-outs?

A.) (AR) We believe the recruiting approach works best because we like to see players in high school games. This allows us to see them in pressure situations and in game conditions. We don't believe tryouts always allow the best evaluations of a player. We've never held tryouts, and we feel like our evaluation process has been very good. We've had over 200 college players, over 100 Division I signees, 24 SEC players, 5 NBA players, and 4 McDonald's All-Americans.

Q.) (DY) Will you be looking to recruit any specific players at this point or will that come later?

A.) (AR) We will certainly target the elite players in Kentucky. We know who those guys are in the older age groups and we will begin the evaluation process for the younger classes.

Q.) (DY) How quickly do you estimate rosters for your teams will come together?

A.) (AR) We hope the rosters come together quickly. The 16u roster is nearly complete right now and we only have 2-3 postions left open. We realize it will take a little longer with the 17u team because we are just now beginning the recruiting process with a group of outstanding players.

Q.) (DY) What goals will the Travelers go into the EYBL with next year?

A.) (AR) The goal of every EYBL team is to qualify for Peach Jam, and that's our goal each year. We have qualified 11 times in 18 years, so we feel like out track record is pretty good in that respect. Obviously, we'd like to win Peach Jam, which essentially means you are the best travel team in the nation. We've been to the final four but have never won the championship.

Q.) (DY) You all will be in direct competition with the Louisville Magic, who have already achieved national success as an AAU team based in KY, how do you all plan to convince the top players in Kentucky that they should play for the KY Travelers instead?

A.) (AR) Our track record (25 years as a program, 18 years as a Nike program) is second to none. Nike Basketball and the EYBL speak for themselves. There is nothing to compare to it. Our 17u coaches (Brendan Plavich, Vincent Yarbrough) have a combined 8 years of NCAA Division I experience and 15 years of professional basketball experience as players. Once the elite players in Kentucky get to know our program and our staff, we believe it will be an easy decision for them to play with us. The elite players nation-wide want to play in the EYBL, and it should be no different in Kentucky.

Q.) (DY) Do you think Kentucky can handle having both a major Nike AAU affiliate and an Adidas affiliate?

A.) (AR) We just believe our competition is with the other Nike teams in the EYBL. The ultimate goal of every travel program is to play in Peach Jam. To us, there is no other competition.

Q.) (DY) You all will be based out of a city who's home team is a major Nike college affiliate do you think that'll help you at all?

A.) (AR) We think being based in Kentucky, a basketball-first state, is a big benefit for our program.

Q.) (DY) What type of response have you gotten from players/coaches in regards to the news of the Travelers moving into Kentucky?

A.) (AR) The response has been overwhelming, and it's been extremely positive. We look forward to developing new relationships and continuing to build on the previous relationships we've already established. The passion for basketball in Kentucky is simply amazing.

Q.) (DY) Do you already know who will be coaching your teams next AAU season? If so who?

A.) (AR) Our 17u coaches are Brendan Plavich and Vincent Yarbrough. We may add one more person to that staff. Our 16u coaches are Larry Robinson, Tre High, and Jesse Sizemore. Larry was the first African-American to play basketball at the University of Tennessee and later played in the NFL for the Cowboys. Tre has been on our staff for many years and is a high school coach in Chattanooga. Jesse is an outstanding young coach from Kentucky. We may also add one of our former players to that staff.

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I definitely want to thank Andy Rines for taking the time to answer my questions and I also want to thank Jesse Sizemore for helping me as well. I look forward to covering the Travelers as they make Kentucky their new home. 

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