Kentucky's Unprecedented Leap to No. 1 in Preseason Rankings Exemplifies New Era

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Kentucky's Unprecedented Leap to No. 1 in Preseason Rankings Exemplifies New Era

This is what everyone expected: Kentucky at preseason No. 1. 

Remember last year and the NIT and Robert Morris? 

Forget about it.

The coaches didn't let that affect their judgment in Thursday's preseason coaches poll. The Wildcats became the first team to appear at preseason No. 1 in the poll's 23-year history after finishing the previous season unranked, according to Eric Prisbell of USA Today

John Calipari likes history. He's said he wants to be the first coach to go 40-0. And part of him has to love this.

He turned the most frustrating team he's ever coached into the most admired by signing what could go down as the greatest recruiting class of all time.

Better than the Fab Five. Better than any class John Wooden or Dean Smith or Mike Krzyzewski ever put together. 

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Kentucky's six McDonald's All-American freshmen.

Calipari's six McDonald's All-Americans join a rotation that returns two NBA first-round talents already in place. 

From the NIT to the top. From flawed to flaunted.

This is about the time when the Calipari skeptics remind us that preseason polls mean little except to the fans and media.

Let's get that out of the way: It's true—they don't. No one wins on paper in October. 

But who has actually seen the Kentucky freshmen and has an idea of how good they can be? Coaches—on the recruiting trail. And those coaches voted UK No. 1 when Michigan State and Louisville were pretty good options (Nos. 2 and 3, respectively). 

Thursday's poll was a reminder of what college basketball has become. You want to be at the top? You better go after the rentals who would have bypassed college altogether before the NBA set an age limit. Teams like No. 2 Michigan State, with three upperclassmen in its projected starting lineup, could become the outliers. 

Look around at the rest of the Top 10:

  • Kansas lost five starters, but Bill Self's team is at No. 6 because of Andrew Wiggins and a few other talented freshmen.
  • Duke and Arizona would not be in the Top Five if it weren't for their star freshmen. 
  • Michigan lost two starters to the NBA. John Beilein's core is a talented group of freshmen and sophomores, and the Wolverines are ranked ninth. 

And these are coaches—not just the media—voting on the "unproven."

It's hard to throw that word around anymore. We feel like we know these kids from the start because their highlight tapes on YouTube and the national recruiting rankings that fans become obsessed with.

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Bill Self (left) has the second-best freshman class, thanks to the addition of Andrew Wiggins (middle).

Wiggins, Kentucky's Julius Randle, Duke's Jabari Parker and Arizona's Aaron Gordon are as known commodities as Louisville senior Russ Smith or Creighton's two-time All-American Doug McDermott. 

If you polled the general population and asked if they knew who Andrew Wiggins was and who Doug McDermott was, I guarantee Wiggins would win in a landslide. Over a two-time first-team All-American

We've come to accept that freshmen can make a huge difference.

But when you sit back and really think about Kentucky as preseason No. 1, and really think about a program that lost its last game to Robert (bleeping) Morris getting top-ranked honors, it really is unfathomable. 

Just look at the last 15 years: 

Postseason Finish the Previous Year for Preseason No. 1s
Year Preseason No.1 Previous Season
1998-99 Duke Elite Eight
1999-00 Connecticut National Champs
2000-01 Arizona Round of 32
2001-02 Duke National Champs
2002-03 Arizona Sweet 16
2003-04 Connecticut Sweet 16
2004-05 Kansas Elite Eight
2005-06 Duke Sweet 16
2006-07 Florida National Champs
2007-08 North Carolina Elite Eight
2008-09 North Carolina Final Four
2009-10 Kansas Sweet 16
2010-11 Duke National Champs
2011-12 North Carolina Elite Eight
2012-13 Indiana Sweet 16
2013-14 Kentucky NIT First Round

All of those No. 1s were already proven. They returned a lot of talent. They had previous success. 

Yet Thursday's news was not really news. It was expected. Just realize it was also unprecedented and is where college basketball is headed. 

Now let's see if the 'Cats can really make history.

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