KANSAS CITY, Mo. (KT) — John Calipari hasn’t had much luck with fifth-year seniors. However, Reid Travis has proven to be an exception and may have convinced the Kentucky coach to try the unique recruiting practice more in the future.
Travis played four seasons (he was injured during one of those) at Stanford but wasn’t finished with his collegiate career. In a recruiting tug-o-war between defending national champion Villanova and Kentucky during the off-season, the Wildcats won out, a move that gave Calipari an experienced senior in addition to a reliable presence in the post. Aside from missing five games because of a sprained knee, the addition of Travis has been an equalizer for the Wildcats.
It’s also been a win-win for both parties. Travis is undefeated in the NCAA Tournament (3-0) and is within one win of returning home to Minneapolis for the Final Four. Kentucky plays Auburn in the Midwest Region finale at 2:20 p.m. Sunday and the winner claims one of four spots in the national semifinals.
Travis scored six points and grabbed 11 rebounds in Kentucky’s 62-58 win over Houston Friday night. He has averaged 11 rebounds in the team’s past two games, but more than his scoring contributions.
In addition to his success in the NCAA Tournament, Travis has enjoyed being a team leader.
“It’s been a great experience,” Travis said. “That was one of the things that attracted me to Kentucky was there wasn’t a lot of older guys. I felt it would be nice for me to have a younger team and kind of have my leadership presence and kind of just doing that. It’s been great so far to learn from the younger guys and trying to use my experience through college basketball to be a leader and enjoy every game we’ve been playing so far in the tournament.”
Kentucky’s players, including Tyler Herro, have gleaned from Travis’ past experiences.
“It’s great to have a veteran like Reid on the team, someone that we can look up to,” he said. “Obviously he’s been through a lot. So whenever we need the advice or anything like that, we can go to him. But like coach said, he’s in the gym doing all that. Something like that, we can just follow him. So I mean obviously just great to have someone like that.”
Calipari tried the graduate transfer route the year after winning his first national championship at Kentucky. The Kentucky coach brought in Wright State guard Julius Mays, who averaged 9.3 points per game. The addition of Mays gave the Wildcats depth on the perimeter on a team that finished 21-12 and failed to reach the NCAA Tournament for the only time in Calipari’s tenure as coach of the Wildcats. Kentucky, the overall No. 1 seed in the NIT, lost in the first round to Robert Morris that season.
This time, Calipari needed experience in the post and turned to Travis. Although Travis had four years of experience prior to his arrival at Kentucky, he wasn’t beyond improving and getting better. Travis said the biggest thing that changed his game was changing his body and the way he moves inside the lane.
“The biggest thing I take away is just the little nuances that he’s taught me in my game, that I can affect the game without scoring or just rebounding as far as blocking shots, defending multiple positions,” he said. “These are all things I didn’t necessarily think about too much in my previous years in college, and when I got here, it was a big emphasis to him is that it’s not always about trying to throw up the biggest numbers but you can affect the game in so many ways.”
Calipari said the relationship goes beyond the court.
“He and I have political talks,” he said. “We talk about stuff. (I) like having an older player (on the team).”
It has certainly paid off for the Wildcats, who would like to give Travis a homecoming to remember.
Gametracker: Kentucky vs. Auburn, 2:20 p.m. Sunday. TV/Radio: CBS, UK Radio Network.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.