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Gary B. Graves | The Associated Press | October 31, 2013

Kentucky No. 1 in AP preseason poll

Kentucky head coach John Calipari

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Every time Kentucky head coach John Calipari starts to praise his latest crop of talented freshmen, he's just as quick to point out that it is a work in progress.

As the Wildcats take the first step toward coming together, Calipari will also have to remind his players to get through those growing pains quickly, because they are now the team to beat in college basketball.

Complete poll

Kentucky -- with a collection of high school All-Americans -- is ranked No. 1 in The Associated Press' preseason Top 25, a significant step considering the Wildcats finished 21-12 last season and were upset by Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT.

It's Kentucky's third preseason No. 1 and first since 1995-96 when the Wildcats won the national championship. The other preseason No. 1 was in 1980-81.

Kentucky was ranked for just one week in the final 16 polls of last season but Calipari enters this season with a roster featuring two returnees -- Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein -- and six freshmen who were selected McDonalds All-Americans last season.

To say that a ninth national championship is this year's goal is an understatement considering Kentucky has social media and blogs suggesting an unbeaten season is possible.

Calipari would just like to get to the Nov. 8 opener against North Carolina-Asheville first. The Wildcats begin the exhibition season Friday.

''It's a nice honor, but it's way too early to figure out who's the best team in the country,'' Calipari said. ''We may be very talented, but I can't imagine us being the best team in the country at this point.''

Kentucky beat out Michigan State in a close vote from the 65-member panel.

The Wildcats received 27 first-place votes and 1,546 points in the poll released Thursday. The Spartans, who return four starters from the team that lost to Duke in the NCAA tournament's round of 16, snared 22 first-place votes and 1,543 points.

It won't take long for the schools to settle the issue. Kentucky and Michigan State meet on Nov. 12 at the State Farm Champions Classic in Chicago.

If their rankings hold, it'll set up the earliest meeting between the top two teams. No. 1 Indiana beat No. 2 UCLA 84-64 on Nov. 29, 1975 in St. Louis, Mo.

The polling also enhances what already figured to be a strong showdown between two heavyweights.

Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo
''A 1-2 matchup is a win-win deal,'' Spartans head coach Tom Izzo told the AP. ''If you win, you understand where you are and what you have as a team. If you lose, you've got time to figure out what you need to do to get better. I'm not sure, though, how kids and fans will react to winning or losing that game.''

Of his team's ranking, Izzo added, ''It's exciting because it means a group of people think we're good, and we've got a chance to be great.''

Defending national champion Louisville received 14 first-place votes and was third while Duke, which received the other two No. 1 votes, was fourth.

Kansas was fifth, followed by Arizona and Michigan. Oklahoma State and Syracuse tied for eighth and Florida rounded out the top 10.

Ohio State was 11th and was followed by North Carolina, Memphis, VCU, Gonzaga, Wichita State, Marquette, Connecticut, Oregon and Wisconsin.

The last five ranked teams were Notre Dame, UCLA, New Mexico, Virginia and Baylor.

The last preseason No. 1 not to be ranked in the final poll of the previous season was Indiana in 1979-80.

Indiana was the preseason No. 1 last season and the Hoosiers were fourth in the final poll.

Gonzaga was No. 1 in the final poll last season and 18 teams in that final poll were in the preseason Top 25.

The Atlantic Coast Conference had the most teams in the preseason Top 25 with five and the Big Ten had four. The new American Athletic Conference, the Big 12 and Pac-12 all had three ranked teams.

Though Kentucky's objective is winning its second NCAA title in three seasons, playing like it's the nation's best is also a priority for the Wildcats a year after falling from the poll weeks after starting No. 3.

''It's a blessing to be No. 1, but it means we have a [target] on our backs now and we really have to stay focused,'' Kentucky 7-footer Dakari Johnson said Thursday. ''That's not the main thing we're focused on. We're just trying to be the best team that we can be.''

Michigan State senior guard Keith Appling echoed that sentiment, especially since the Spartans came within three votes of being top-ranked.

''That has to be one of the things to drive us to work harder,'' he said.

The consensus is that Calipari landed his best in a series of No. 1 recruiting classes. The group features Julius Randle, James Young, Johnson, Marcus Lee and identical twin guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison, along with in-state standouts Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis.

Along with Cauley-Stein, Poythress and senior reserves Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood, Kentucky has a mix of experience somewhat similar to the 2011-12 title team led by Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

The season will determine whether Kentucky is able to deliver, and Willis said the Wildcats are just focused on being on top at the end.

''There's a lot of talk about 40-0 and all that stuff,'' Willis said, ''but we're just working on ourselves and not worrying about what the media is saying right now.''

Here are five things to know about the poll:

CONFERENCE CALL: The Atlantic Coast Conference led the way with five teams in the preseason Top 25 (Duke, Syracuse, North Carolina, Notre Dame and Virginia). The Big Ten was next with four (Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin). The new American Athletic Conference, the Big 12 and the Pac-12 all had three teams.

The Big East, which holds the record with nine teams in one Top 25 -- it did it for one week in January 2009 and for one week in January 2011 -- had just Marquette in the preseason Top 25 but four schools which left the conference before this season were ranked: Louisville and Connecticut of the American Athletic Conference and Syracuse and Notre Dame of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

ON A STREAK: Duke has the longest current consecutive streak of appearances in the Top 25. This is the Blue Devils' 117th consecutive poll, a streak that started with the preseason poll in 2007-08. Kansas is second with 85 consecutive weeks being ranked. The record is 221 consecutive polls by UCLA from 1966 until 1980.

COMING IN: Seven schools which weren't in the final poll of 2012-13 were in the preseason Top 25 starting with No. 1 Kentucky. Also unranked at the end of last season were: Connecticut, North Carolina, Virginia, Baylor, VCU and Wichita State.

SITTING ON TOP: This was Kentucky's third time as the preseason No. 1, joining 1980-81 and 1995-96. UCLA and North Carolina are tied with eight preseason No. 1 rankings while Duke is next with seven.

UNRANKED TO NO. 1: Preseason No. 1 Kentucky wasn't in the final poll last season. The Wildcats are the first preseason No. 1 not to be ranked in the previous season's final poll since Indiana was on top in 1979-80. The only other time it happened was in 1966-67 when UCLA was the preseason No. 1 after not being ranked in the final poll of the previous season.

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