The speed, skill and high-flying art of college basketball will lay its footprint in unfamiliar territory Monday, when the inaugural Cayman Islands Classic tips off at John Gray High School.
Eight impressive teams from all over the United States will be competing over the next three days, and John Gray will host four games a day in the tournament’s initial run. Five of the eight teams played in a postseason tournament last year, and they are all pointing toward another successful season.
“We’re really looking forward to it,” said Richmond head coach Chris Mooney of the Cayman Islands Classic. “Since we agreed and were invited, we’ve been thrilled. It’s a great opportunity for all of us and especially our players to be able to go to such a beautiful place and learn about some other culture and the history of the Cayman Islands. And then also to be able to play at such a high level tournament.”
The University of Cincinnati, which has made the National Collegiate Athletic Association postseason tournament for seven straight seasons, is perhaps the most accomplished member of the field. The Bearcats are ranked No. 12 in the country in the second Associated Press poll of the season.
Cincinnati will be challenged by the University of Iowa, among others, and the tournament organizers hope that basketball will catch on with the Cayman populace after they see the game up close.
“We know there is going to be a foreign presence in the gym,” said Victor “Voot” O’Garro, the president of Caymax Sports Ltd, the host of the event. “My objective is to sell this to the local people and have them see what basketball at this level entails. We want to build the interest going forward.
“This is going to be an annual affair, and we already have five teams signed up for next year. And there are other teams knocking on the door, but we’re choosing who we want to come.”
O’Garro estimated that as many as 1,500 fans might be coming to watch their respective programs play in the tournament, and he said the Iowa team is bringing more than 300 fans by itself.
Iowa will be matched against the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in the tournament’s first game, and South Dakota State University will face off against the University of Wyoming shortly thereafter.
The University of Richmond will play the University of Alabama at Birmingham in the third game on Monday, and Cincinnati will be pitted against the State University of New York at Buffalo.
The winning teams will go on to play each other on Tuesday, while the losing teams will form their own bracket. And on Wednesday, the two undefeated teams will square off in the championship game.
“A tournament atmosphere during the season is great,” said Iowa coach Fran McCaffery. “You’re in one place, you prepare for various teams and it’s what you’re going to do at the end of the year for your conference tournament. It’s what you’re going to do for the NCAA tournament.”
Iowa is busy preparing for an arduous season in the competitive Big Ten Conference, and it has a rich history of participating in preseason tournaments to fall back on. McCaffery has taken his team to New the Bahamas, the Virgin Islands and Cancun, Mexico in recent seasons to participate in preseason tournaments, and he said the Cayman Islands Classic is off to a great start in choosing its teams.
“It’s really good,” said McCaffery of the field he’ll be competing against. “There’s some very, very good teams and some very good players. It’s a good cross-section of teams from different conferences and different styles of play. If you’re a basketball fan, you’re going to really enjoy that aspect of it.”
For UAB and Richmond, there’s a chance to stoke a regional rivalry far away from home. Mooney said he’s excited about bringing his team to Cayman to face a competitive field, but in the days leading up to the tournament, his staff was consumed with preparing for its opening game against UAB.
“For us to play UAB in the first game, they’re a great program and have done very well over the years,” said Mooney, the head coach at Richmond since 2005. “I think we have tremendous respect for them as well as the entire field. Everybody in the tournament is very good and we’re well aware of that. The only thing we can think about right now is UAB, but we’re aware of just how good everybody is.”
Robert Ehsan, UAB’s coach, said it’s important for his team to be part of such a competitive environment early in the season. He wants his players to enjoy the experience while they are off the court, and he’s hoping they will be able to come together as a more effective team due to the challenge.
“I think we’re really excited about the opportunity,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a really good field. There’s some really good basketball teams in there. For us to play three high-quality opponents and have a chance to compete for a tournament championship early in the season, it’s going to be great.”
Buffalo may have drawn the toughest assignment with its first-round matchup against Cincinnati, but coach Nate Oats is looking at the game as a chance to test his team’s level of play. If they do not show up against Cincinnati, said Oats, his players are going to be in for a long game and perhaps a long season.
“Cincinnati is loaded, they play hard and they’re physical. It’s like I told my team: ‘Year to year, they may be the toughest program,’” said Oats of his team’s matchup. “If we have anybody who’s soft, anybody who isn’t playing tough, it will be exposed in a big way early on in the year. Hopefully, we don’t get exposed. Hopefully, we play really well. But it’s a great opportunity. I’m thankful we were invited.”
Buffalo only has one senior on its roster, and three of its nine scholarship players are freshmen. The Buffalo program has made the NCAA Tournament just twice in its history – in 2015 and 2016 – but Oats thinks his players cannot really improve unless they find themselves in challenging situations.
It’s a long season, and Oats knows his team has a long road to be ready for the postseason in March. Coming to a preseason tournament like this, he said, is a great way to prep for the meat of the schedule.
“I think we’re honored, and I think it’s a great experience,” he said. “I think this tournament is going to blow up. I’ve already heard some of the teams they’re getting for next year. I’m going to beg to come to this every four years. You can only do these every four years, but I’m going to try to make this thing as often as I can, and I think it’s great that we’re able to make it for the first time.”