For just the third time in its storied history, Kentucky basketball has landed the No. 1 ranking in the preseason AP poll. The Wildcats’ influx of high-powered freshmen has been one of the top stories of the offseason, but how does this team compare to UK’s previous preseason favorites?
Here’s a look at all three of the ‘Cats’ preseason No. 1 appearances, including how they finished as well as how much buzz they started with.
A top-five team throughout the previous season, Kentucky entered 1980-81 at the top of the polls for good reason. Most of the core of those SEC champs was back, led by towering center Sam Bowie.
About the only bad news in Lexington was that scoring leader Kyle Macy had graduated, but he left the point guard position in the sure hands of Dirk Minniefield.
However, the ‘Cats weren’t exactly an overwhelming pick for the No. 1 spot. Second-ranked DePaul (which returned future NBA stars Mark Aguirre and Terry Cummings) overtook Kentucky by the time the Week 1 poll came out, even though the Wildcats wouldn’t suffer their first loss for another three weeks.
UK never made it back to the top of the rankings that season, entering the NCAA tournament as a No. 2 seed. To top off the indignity, they got bounced in their first tournament game, falling to seventh-seeded UAB as Bowie (for the second time in his first three March Madness games) fouled out before he made it to 10 points.
Even with two starters gone, Kentucky’s 1995-96 squad returned five players with at least 20 three-pointers made. Little wonder, then, that the preseason rankings reflected the team’s chance to be Rick Pitino’s best ever.
Unlike their 1980-81 predecessors, these Wildcats had enough of a lead in pollsters’ minds that it took a loss (to Marcus Camby and UMass) to dethrone them in the rankings. That same John Calipari-coached Minutemen team would go on to spend much of the year at No. 1, replaced only by Kentucky (and then only briefly) near the end of the season.
In the tournament, though, Kentucky’s shooters caught fire, putting up a pair of triple-digit scoring performances and blowing out their first four opponents by 20-plus point margins. The Final Four was a bit more competitive but with the same results: a revenge victory over UMass and a title-game romp over Syracuse brought Pitino his first national title and Kentucky its sixth.
It remains to be seen, of course, whether this season’s Wildcats can match the 1996 national title run. That they’re even being talked about as contenders, though, is (from a historical perspective) an amazing feat on Calipari’s part.
After all, this is a team that got embarrassed in the first round of the 2013 NIT, then lost Nerlens Noel, Archie Goodwin and Kyle Wiltjer. Even five years ago, the notion of a team in that position being ranked No. 1 the following year would’ve been laughable.
Now, with Anthony Davis’ Undeniables and their 2012 title in the history books, the value of freshmen has risen exponentially. So, too, has the chance to generate offseason buzz around a team that would have been left for dead in previous years.
It’s worth noting that, like the 1995-96 squad, these Wildcats will get an early chance to prove they’re for real against another top title contender. This time around, it’s No. 2 Michigan State, their opponent for ESPN’s Champions Classic (to be played at the United Center).
If Calipari’s crop of six McDonald’s All-Americans (a triumph even for him) can live up to stratospheric expectations, the sheer quantity of NBA-bound talent on these Wildcats will rival even Pitino’s revered national champs. Either way, the chance for a sudden miracle turnaround has raised those expectations to heights not even Kentucky has seen before.