Mags forecast big year for Wildcats

Jamie H. Vaught

September 24, 2013

It’s definitely a very exciting time to be a college basketball fan, especially if you are from the Big Blue Nation. And the annual Big Blue Madness is just around the corner, taking place at Rupp Arena on Friday, Oct. 18.

The annual preseason hoops yearbooks, as expected, are forecasting a banner campaign for John Calipari’s fifth Kentucky squad during the 2013-14 season.

Three of the four outstanding yearbooks that I have received — Athlon Sports, Sporting News and USA Today Sports — are rating the Wildcats No. 1 in their preseason polls with Lindy’s Sports selecting Michigan State as the favorite, just ahead of No. 2 UK.

In USA Today Sports yearbook, Dick Vitale says he really believes Kentucky will be special this winter after signing a handful of superstar rookies. The ESPN sportscaster calls last season’s 21-12 team “a blip” following UK’s national title season of 2011-12.

As for Kentucky’s rival school from the river city of Louisville, coach Rick Pitino’s 13th U of L squad is No. 2 in Athlon. USA Today and Sporting News are picking defending champion Louisville at No. 3.

So we could be looking at another Final Four with two state teams — the Wildcats and the Cardinals — playing in April at AT&T Stadium (formerly called the Cowboys Stadium) in Arlington, Texas. Just like the 2012 event when both UK and U of L fought in New Orleans.

Athlon also has an excellent article about the heated rivalry between the Cats and Cards, profiling five personalities, including three former players.

Very interestingly, all four yearbooks are in complete agreement as they picked the same 12 teams, in no particular order, among the top 12 in four preseason polls. For instance, Florida is ranked sixth, according to USA Today. Athlon has the Gators at No. 7 with Lindy’s and Sporting News picking them at No. 8 and No. 12, respectively.

In these four yearbooks, Kentucky and Florida are the only ones from the SEC listed among the top 12 teams.

Heading the Florida team are senior standouts Patric Young and Scottie Wilbekin, along with transfer standout Dorian Finney-Smith, who earned ACC’s All-Freshman honors while at Virginia Tech. And don’t forget Gator boss Billy Donovan’s son, Billy, is on the UF squad as a junior walk-on after two years at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

As far as the SEC race is concerned, Tennessee and LSU are expected to be the league’s strongest challengers to Kentucky and Florida. In addition to UK and Florida, Tennessee is the other conference team that is ranked in the Top 25.

The highest national ranking for the Vols, who return All-SEC standouts 6-8, 260-pounder Jarnell Stokes and 6-6 shooting guard Jordan McRae, is No. 17 by Athlon, with No. 19 by Sporting News and No. 21 by USA Today. UT was not ranked at all in Lindy’s Top 40 poll.

LSU figures to improve this winter with 6-9 junior Johnny O’Bryant III leading the charge after a 19-12 season (9-9 in SEC) under first-year mentor Johnny Jones, a Dale Brown disciple. Lindy’s has the Tigers at No. 33 in its Top 40 poll. LSU’s future is bright with a Top 10 recruiting class in tow.

Since the same 12 schools are all ranked among the top 12 in four different polls by these magazines, I decided to put together my Top 12 composite ranking of four yearbooks’ preseason polls.

In the composite ranking, Kentucky, not surprisingly, is at the top with 47 points (out of possible 48) with the Cats getting three first-place rankings. Michigan State (43 points) is second. Duke and Louisville follow at No. 3 and No. 4, respectively.

The composite Top 12 ranking is as follows:

1) Kentucky (47 points)

2) Michigan State (43)

3) Duke (38)

4) Louisville (37)

5) Kansas (32)

6) Arizona (23)

7) Florida (19)

8) North Carolina (17)

9) Michigan (15)

9) Oklahoma St. (15)

11) Syracuse (14)

12) Ohio St. (12)

As for the individual players, Lindy’s, as usual, has ratings for nation’s Top 25 at five different positions.

UK’s sophomore tandem of Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress are getting more attention, making the regional covers of various yearbooks. Cauley-Stein, along with freshmen Julius Randle and Andrew Harrison, have received preseason All-American honors.

Speaking of women’s basketball, Coach Matthew Mitchell’s highly-regarded Kentucky squad will be very tough again. UK is ranked no lower than No. 8 with the highest ranking being No. 5 by Sporting News.

This year’s colorful yearbooks are really good and loaded with interesting perspectives and useful recruiting information as well as entertaining stories about the Wildcats and their freshmen.

The publications range in price from $6.99 to $7.99, and you can’t go wrong when you get one or even all of them.

They are now available at your favorite newsstand or online at sportingnews.com (SN), lindyssports.com (Lindy’s), athlonsports.com (Athlon), and specialpubs.usatoday.com (USA Today).

Ever since I was a kid, I have always enjoyed reading the preseason stuff over the years. And, as a roundball fan, I certainly couldn’t live without them now as the 2013-14 campaign will be tipping off pretty soon.