Virgin Islands Latest Tourist Attraction For College Hoops

Virgin Islands Latest Tourist Attraction For College Hoops

Nov. 15, 2001

By JIM O’CONNELL AP Basketball Writer

The Virgin Islands – beautiful beaches, bright sunshine and big-time college basketball.

Move over, Maui. Step aside, San Juan. There’s a new vacation venue moving onto the Division I basketball scene.

The Paradise Jam, a six-team invitational to be played at the University of Virgin Islands, starts Saturday, the latest early season competition at an exotic locale.

“It was about 10 months ago we started working on this and it all happened really quickly,” UVI athletic director Peter Sauer said. “The year before we had a women’s tournament with Texas Tech, LSU, Penn State and Southwest Missouri State and that was played at a local high school. Word spread pretty quickly in the women’s game about how great it was and when we opened our new facility, we were able to think about a men’s tournament.”

The first men’s field features Clemson, Miami, Fla., Alabama-Birmingham, La Salle, Eastern Michigan and Morris Brown.

“It’s a three-hour flight from the East Coast and it’s a tropical location with an NCAA-quality arena with a wood floor,” Sauer said.

Those things were enough to persuade Clemson.

“We were looking for a preseason tournament and this caught our eye,” Clemson coach Larry Shyatt said. “The trip is not excessive in terms of time like Hawaii is and that’s important because we have to come right back and play in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.”

Many figure recruiting would be a major factor in scheduling a tournament like this, but Shyatt said that’s down the list.

“The first thing is preparing your team and that is the single most important factor – using the three games as preparation for the conference and NCAA tournament,” he said. “The second-most important thing is to take advantage of the opportunity the NCAA has given us in playing in events like this twice every four years in terms of games played. Recruiting is a distant third.”

UVI is an accredited U.S. university with 3,000 students on two campuses and one of the top marine science programs in the world. It recently opened the $9.9 million Sports and Fitness Center, a 64,000-foot, 4,000-seat facility built on the site of the school’s old field house, an old seaplane hangar built in the late 1930s by the Navy.

The arena is about 100 yards from John Brewers Bay, consistently rated one of the world’s top beaches, and is adjacent to the campus golf course.

Basketball is far from a novelty in the Virgin Islands.

The most famous of its players is Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs. There’s also Raja Bell of the Philadelphia 76ers, and David Vanterpool, who was with the New Jersey Nets in training camp, as well as current college players Kitwana Rhymer of Massachusetts, and Cuthbert Victor of Murray State, and recent college players Reggie Freeman of Texas and Jameel Heywood of Oklahoma.

Milt Newton, an all-tournament team selection for Kansas when it won the 1988 national championship, played for the Virgin Islands in the 1987 Pan Am Games.

Now the director of player personnel for the National Basketball Development League, the NBA’s new minor league, Newton hopes the influx of visiting Division I teams can make a difference for players from the Virgin Islands.

“One thing this tournament might lead to is a lot of college coaches being there and seeing some of the local talent and start recruiting down there,” Newton said.

There are two women’s tournaments in the Virgin Islands this month, the second of which runs Nov. 24-26 and features No. 13 Florida and No. 22 Arizona State.

“Our fields are almost full for the women’s tournaments next year and there are a number of Top 10-caliber schools,” Sauer said. “We’re working on the men’s field now and hope to have those schools finalized soon.”