When Dwane Casey's Toronto Raptors tipped off their regular season on Wednesday, Oct. 28 against the Indiana Pacers, his National Basketball Association team was favored to capture the Atlantic Division, according to Sporting News college/pro basketball yearbook. In addition, Sports Illustrated, in its special Oct. 26 NBA Preview edition, has the Raptors listed at No. 2 behind the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference.
Casey (pictured above) loves the lofty preseason expectations for the Raptors, who last season won their second straight division crown and finished with a team-best ever 49-33 mark before being swept by the Washington Wizards in the first round of the playoffs.
"I don't mind the high ranking," said Casey, a former UK player who is beginning his fifth year as Toronto's head coach. "It's a credit to what we have built here in the five years I have been here. We started at the bottom of the division. We have now built it where we are favorites. That's respect and that is what you work for in the NBA."
One of his players on the roster is 6-9, 230-pound Patrick Patterson, a former McDonald's All-American and three-time All-SEC who starred at UK. Casey obviously enjoys having Patterson -- a Kentucky connection -- around and also praised the player's attitude.
"I talk to Pat about Kentucky a lot," said Casey, who played for coach Joe B. Hall on the 1978 national championship squad during his junior year and became the team co-captain as a senior. "We both have great memories of our days at Kentucky. We pull for the Cats every time they are playing. We tease the other guys from North Carolina and Duke. We brag about our program. Pat is a big time pro. On and off the floor."
After leaving Kentucky (along with freshman teammates John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton), Patterson was a first-round draft pick (14th overall) by Houston in 2010 and the part-time NBA starter is now beginning his sixth season in the pro ranks. During his productive NBA career, he has averaged 23.5 minutes, 8.3 points and 4.8 rebounds.
And don't forget the Raptors also have Canadian and ex-NBA standout Jamaal Magloire, a key member of UK's 1998 national championship team, on the staff. He is entering his fourth year as basketball development consultant and community ambassador, helping the coaching staff at practice and make community appearances. Magloire remains as UK's all-time leader in blocked shots with 268.
Casey, who was also a graduate assistant under Hall and an assistant coach under Eddie Sutton at Kentucky, said he hasn't been back to watch a UK game at Rupp Arena in recent years.
"It's been awhile since I have been back to a game," he said. "Our schedule makes it impossible. With all their games televised, I don't miss them. I have a lot of respect for what Coach Calipari has done with keeping of the Kentucky tradition. He has produced many great NBA players."
A graduate of UK with a degree in business administration, Casey was asked who were his biggest influences as far as coaching.
"I have taken a lot of what I have learned from Coach Hall about running a program, defense and a lot of offensive fundamentals we were taught each day," he recalled. "Coach Hall was a very disciplined coach. You learn to respect that once you get older and now that I am an NBA head coach.
"I also learned from Coach Sutton and Coach Clem Haskins at Western Kentucky (where Casey was assistant also). All three men are great basketball minds and have contributed greatly to the game."
Casey, a Morganfield, Ky., native who has coached in various positions in the NBA 20 of the past 21 years, said coaching pro players is more challenging than on the collegiate level.
"The NBA is the most difficult," he said. "It's managing 15 different corporations with different agendas trying to attain the same goal. In college the head coach is the ultimate GM (general manager) and head coach. Recruiting is difficult but still you have more control of your program."
Casey was also the bench boss with the Minnesota Timberwolves from 2005-07.
His favorite NBA memory?
"Winning the NBA Championship at Dallas in 2011, going to the NBA Finals in '96 in Seattle and being a two-time head coach in the league," commented Casey, who is married with two children, daughter Justine and son Zachary. "It's a very rewarding league but a very difficult league to win in. Winning the championship at the college level is difficult as it was when we won in 1978 but winning the NBA championship is far more difficult because you are playing and coaching against the best players in the world."
The Raptors mentor was also glad to see prep All-American Jamal Murray of Kitchiner, Ontario (which is about 1.5 hours from Toronto) play for the Wildcats this season.
"Coach (Cal) was at one of our playoff games last year but did not have a chance to spend time with him," said Casey. "He recruited one of the top players in this area of Toronto in the Murray kid. I was happy to see he decided to attend Kentucky."
Casey added that he doesn't have any John Calipari stories, but he commented he has "nothing but respect for what he (UK coach) has done in recruiting and coaching the best players in the country. Maintaining the program with the most wins in NCAA basketball. He follows a group of great coaches there -- Coach Rupp, Coach Hall, Coach Sutton, Coach Pitino and Coach Smith. Some great coaches in their own right. He has done a fantastic job with the program and I'm proud to be an alumni." Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com online magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.