The Kentucky basketball team’s unique route to London. And how they spent their first day.

This weekend’s trip to London is obviously a unique one for the Kentucky Wildcats, who will be playing the program’s first regular-season game in Europe on Sunday against Michigan.

The manner in which the Cats made their way to England’s capital was also out of the ordinary. For them, at least.

Accustomed to chartered flights within the United States, the team often bypasses the lines that come with standard commercial travel. This time around — since they were on an international flight — Kentucky’s team went through a normal security screening and ticketing process when they departed.

Before they got that far — the Cats actually flew out of the Cincinnati-area airport — they boarded buses leaving from UK’s campus Wednesday afternoon, less than 24 hours after their game against Bellarmine on Tuesday night.

Kentucky flew on an Airbus A330 plane, with a team traveling party of more than 60 people that also included additional passengers associated with the program. The chartered plane had only coach seats for the seven-hour flight, which took off a little after 7 p.m. Lexington time and landed a little after 7 a.m. London time.

Instead of flying into Heathrow Airport — the standard landing spot in London and one of the busiest airports in the world — the destination for Kentucky’s travelers was Stansted Airport, less crowded but located nearly 50 miles from the city’s center, making for another long bus ride before the Cats got a chance to unwind at the team hotel, which is located near Regent’s Park in London and within walking distance of several famous landmarks.

The travel took a bit longer than expected, and players were encouraged to get some rest upon arriving at the hotel, recover from the trip, and try to get acclimated to the five-hour time difference amid the unique schedule. After that, instead of a prearranged ride around town via a London bus tour, the Cats hit the practice floor for a Thursday afternoon walkthrough.

Kentucky’s practice gym for their time in England is a workout complex a little north of the heart of the city with a setup similar to a YMCA in the United States and a court with no fixed seating and generally less space than the Cats are accustomed to — whether in Lexington or on the road — back home.

After the walkthrough, the team headed to Smith & Wollensky — located just off the River Thames, not far from the National Gallery and Great Scotland Yard — for dinner. By the time the Cats got back to the hotel, it was nearly midnight — and after such a hectic day — time for bed.

Lance Ware, left, and Oscar Tshiebwe practiced with the rest of the Kentucky Wildcats on the team’s first day in London on Thursday.
Lance Ware, left, and Oscar Tshiebwe practiced with the rest of the Kentucky Wildcats on the team’s first day in London on Thursday.

A weekend in London

After breakfast at the hotel Friday morning, the team boarded another bus and headed to Stamford Bridge, home to the Chelsea Football Club, one of the world’s most renowned soccer teams and winners of last year’s Champions League — the top competition in Europe.

There, the Kentucky players were treated to a specially planned tour of Chelsea’s playing grounds, which included access to the team’s locker room and other areas of interest around the stadium. Michigan’s players were also at Stamford Bridge for the same tour, though the teams were given different time slots and kept separated while at the stadium. The big TV screens facing the playing surface featured a graphic that said “Chelsea FC welcomes …” with the UK and Michigan logos underneath. The soccer club that hosted the Cats and Wolverines is coincidentally nicknamed “The Blues” — sporting the same color celebrated by the two colleges.

Kentucky Coach John Calipari peeled away from UK’s tour group for a moment to take a photo with a larger-than-life-sized photo of Chelsea player and Team USA star Christian Pulisic.

“Just a couple of kids from Pennsylvania!!” Calipari tweeted, along with the photo. “Missed you today @cpulisic_10 but know you’re focused on the task at hand. Keep making us proud!!”

Calipari, of course, is a Pittsburgh-area native, and Pulisic was born and raised in Hershey, Pa. The American soccer star scored the decisive goal against Iran on Tuesday to push the USA through the group stage of the World Cup in Qatar, where they were scheduled to play their first match in the knockout round Saturday against the Netherlands.

After a ride back to the team hotel for lunch, the Cats boarded yet another bus for a return to the practice facility. The Michigan team had the court for the two hours before it was Kentucky’s turn to practice, and the two teams passed each other in the lobby of the building before the Wildcats hit the floor.

Calipari strolled in with his customary cup of Dunkin coffee — there’s one located right next to the team hotel, apparently — and the team went through its first full practice of the London trip Friday evening, a spirited couple of hours heavy on game planning for the matchup with Michigan and packed with energy for a team that had just arrived in town on an international flight the previous morning.

The Kentucky coach, perhaps already tired of being delayed by London traffic, packed up right after the final huddle, headed for the door of the gym and announced that anyone hoping to get back to the team hotel on the first bus better get a move on. That announcement sparked a flurry of gear-packing — and sprinting to catch up with the coach — from several others in the gym.

From there, the plan was a team dinner at another London restaurant, possibly a late-night team meeting back at the hotel, and then off to bed.

The Cats were to have a similar schedule Saturday afternoon and evening, but the morning hours were reserved for them to venture out of the hotel and explore London in whatever way they choose.

With landmarks like Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, Trafalgar Square and the London Zoo all within reasonable walking distance — or an even shorter ride on the city’s tube system — we’ll find out later what Kentucky’s players decided to do.

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