Kentucky was picked to win the SEC in a preseason media vote, which was no surprise. It’s virtually a standard that the Wildcats will be voted No. 1 preseason, because of their status and because of the massive talent that has come into Lexington since the league was created.
This year shouldn’t have been an exception, and wasn’t. Not with coach John Calipari loading another massively talented recruiting class.
“The other option is to go in with no expectations,” Calipari said on Wednesday. “I don’t think I’d like that very much.”
Calipari’s first national championship two years ago was followed by a season that left Wildcat fans scratching their heads. A mid-February knee injury to freshman Nerlens Noel effectively sank the season; Kentucky was relegated to the NIT and lost its only game to tiny Robert Morris.
But Calipari signed eight freshmen, including McDonald’s All-Americans Dakari Johnson, Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, James Young, Julius Randle and Marcus Lee. Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress returned to give the Wildcats such a formidable look that many are voting them preseason No. 1 in the country, never mind the league.
The SEC was paying its proper dues. Randle, despite never playing in a collegiate game, was voted preseason Player of the Year while Andrew Harrison and Johnson received recognition on the preseason second-team All-SEC squad. And why not?
Expectations shouldn’t be tempered when Calipari and Poythress came to SEC Media Days and talked about how their lofty projections aren’t unreasonable. Calipari has said before, and said again on Wednesday, that a 40-0 season is possible, if not the goal. He cheerfully said that 40 NBA scouts have come by practice during the past 11 days.
“I’m fine with it,” Calipari said. “We got a group of young kids who want to be there. They wanted to play together, and they’re there for that reason.”
Calipari credited being able to haul in so much talent in one class to his past classes. The high-profile recruits see the NBA pipeline that is Kentucky and want to be part of it. That was given a huge boost by a player such as Anthony Davis from the championship team.
“They saw that, we as a staff and they as players, that we got your back,” Calipari said. “We’re going to do what’s best for you, because it’s going to drag us to where we want to go.”
Calipari nearly tasted perfection two years ago, but that Kentucky team lost two games. Not that it hurt it — the Wildcats easily swept through the NCAA tournament for the program’s eighth national title.
Number nine is an expectation, not just a goal. It’s why the freshmen signed, why the upperclassmen came back. There’s no problem with talking about it, because every player on the roster believes that it can be done.
“We’re just trying to progress as a team,” Poythress said. “We don’t listen to anybody’s opinion in the media or anything like that. We want to win a national title. Just take small steps before we make giant leaps."
SEC MEN’S PREDICTIONS
SEC champion: Kentucky (21), Florida (5), Tennessee (1)
Player of the Year: Julius Randle, Kentucky (11), Jordan McRae, Tennessee (5), Johnny O’Bryant III, LSU (3), Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee (2), Patric Young, Florida (2), Marshall Henderson, Ole Miss (2), Trever Relford, Alabama (1)
Order of finish
1. Kentucky (21)
2. Florida (5)
3. Tennessee (1)
7. Ole Miss
9. Texas A&M
12. South Carolina
13. Mississippi State
Julius Randle, Kentucky
Johnny O’Bryant III, LSU
Jordan McRae, Tennessee
Marshall Henderson, Ole Miss
Trevor Releford, Alabama
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