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John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats could be Ottawa-bound on a special diplomatic mission

John Calipari, head coach of the Kentucky Wildcats, gives instructions to his team during the game against the Texas A&M Aggies at Rupp Arena on January 3, 2017 in Lexington, Kentucky.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The University of Kentucky's star-studded basketball team is weighing a trip north after a request from the White House's pick as U.S. ambassador.

It was announced Thursday that Kelly Craft is the U.S. government's nominee for the next ambassador to Canada. Craft and her husband, billionaire Joe Craft, are major donors to the University of Kentucky men's basketball program, which practises at the Joe Craft athletic centre on campus.

University of Kentucky Wildcats coach John Calipari, who is close friends with the couple, told The Globe and Mail that Craft has asked him for two favours once she is confirmed as ambassador.

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"There's two things she wants in Ottawa: She wants my basketball team to be up there playing," he said. "That's one. And the second thing is she wants Drake to come by the ambassador's residence. She knows Drake and I are good friends."

Drake is often found courtside at Raptors games, but he is also a big fan of Kentucky basketball. Drake described Calipari as a mentor during a recent one-hour podcast interview hosted by the coach.

Ottawa has an annual tradition of playing host to a handful of U.S. college basketball teams for a series of exhibition games in August. The city has hosted several teams from Division 1 of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, including Syracuse, Wichita State and Kansas.

The games have shown that Canada's top college teams are competitive with established NCAA programs. Carleton defeated the Wichita State Shockers 100-75 last year, a program that made the Final Four of the NCAA's national tournament in 2013. Wichita State came back to defeat McGill 77-71 last year in a heated game that saw Shockers coach Gregg Marshall ejected for arguing with the officials.

Carleton University's men's program has won seven straight national titles under coach Dave Smart. The University of Ottawa is also highly ranked.

Smart said he knows Calipari and would welcome the chance to host Kentucky. He said they haven't been in touch about a visit yet, but one could be arranged for next summer if there is interest.

"We definitely would love to have them," he said.

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Calipari's program has specialized in attracting so-called "one and done" players who are skilled enough to make the NBA, but must complete their required one year of college. The team has featured several Canadians in recent years, including Jamal Murray, who is now with the NBA's Denver Nuggets, and Trey Lyles, who is with the Utah Jazz.

Next season's Kentucky team will include Shai Alexander of Hamilton.

"I recruit in Canada," Calipari said. "We recruit up there. We know, Canadian basketball, the national team should be an Olympic team coming up and then should be a medal team within that next phase, that's how good I think the basketball in Canada is right now."

Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey, a former Kentucky player who has known Kelly Craft since they were both students at the university, said he would love to see his alma matter play in Ottawa against some Canadian teams, including Toronto's Ryerson University, a team that beat Carleton this year for the provincial championship.

"Carleton and Ryerson both are very competitive teams. I would say they would be probably in the middle of the Division 1. They're not at the level – not a lot of teams are – of Duke or Kentucky, but they could be very competitive," Casey said.

"I think Canada has done a great job with their college programs," he added.

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Casey, also a former Kentucky assistant coach, said it is no longer necessary for Canadian high-school-age players to go to American private schools to get noticed.

"Let's keep the good high-school players here in the country. Play basketball. You're still going to be seen. If you're NBA-ready or an NBA player, you don't have to leave the country to be seen by the NBA," he said. "The NBA is going to find you."

Editor’s Note An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Drake won 13 Grammy Awards in 2017. In fact it was 13 Billboard awards. This is the corrected version
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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

A member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery since 1999, Bill Curry worked for The Hill Times and the National Post prior to joining The Globe in Feb. 2005. Originally from North Bay, Ont., Bill reports on a wide range of topics on Parliament Hill, with a focus on finance. More

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