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JAMIE H. VAUGHT: Kentucky Heading For Historic Season; Can SEC All-Stars Stop Wildcats?


By Jamie H. Vaught

Editor

The Wildcats, with a historic 28-0 mark, are still rolling along with numerous blowouts.

No one in college basketball is able to find a way to stop Kentucky, which has been ranked No. 1 every time since the pre-season AP Top 25 poll came out last fall.

Not even formidable clubs like Kansas, Providence, Texas, North Carolina, UCLA and Louisville couldn't do any damage to Coach Cal's Cats in November and December. In fact, the Jayhawks were destroyed by 32 points. The Friars dropped by 20. The Longhorns lost by 12. The Tar Heels were mishandled by 14. The Bruins were blown out by 39 points.

Among the non-league foes, only the Cardinals, who then had Chris Jones (who since has been dismissed), gave the Wildcats a more competitive battle before losing by eight points in front of a pro-Louisville crowd of 22,812.

Now Kentucky has played 15 SEC games so far this season and the conference schools have struggled mightily to come up with a single victory. A couple of overtime games by Ole Miss and Texas A&M couldn't even derail the Cats.

There are more three chances for the much-improved SEC to crash UK's perfect party before the conference tournament rolls around.

Eighteenth-ranked Arkansas and future NBA star Bobby Portis will test the Cats at Rupp Arena Saturday afternoon. Remember last year when the Razorbacks stunned the Cats 71-67 in overtime at Rupp Arena? So they are not lacking confidence, either. The CBS guys -- Kevin Harlan and Bill Raftery -- who are covering that SEC showdown will found out how "scary good" the Cats are.

And coach Mark Fox's Bulldogs from Georgia aren't bad, either, and they could give the Cats a good fight on a late Tuesday night date in Athens before the ESPN cameras. Then the struggling Gators travel to Rupp Arena for the regular-season finale on Saturday, March 7.

And it's unlikely that even a group of SEC All-Stars could defeat Kentucky if there was a special game like that arranged.

For SEC All-Stars, we can have a big frontline such as 6-10 Bobby Portis of Arkansas, 6-10 Jarell Martin of LSU, 6-10 Damian Jones of Vanderbilt and 6-8 Jordan Mickey, all NBA prospects.

As for backcourt, SEC can feature three-point specialists Stefan Moody of Mississippi and KT Harrell of Auburn along with Tennessee's Josh Richardson, who can score and steal.

Did I miss anybody else? I'm sure I did, missing a couple of names.

Anyhow, I'd love to watch that dream game between the SEC All-Stars and the Wildcats. Definitely it would be a much closer matchup than we have seen most of the season, but the Wildcats would still prevail.

Nevertheless, if things go accordingly, UK will finish with a 31-0 overall mark (18-0 in SEC), entering the SEC Tournament in Nashville.

And that's far better than UK's 22-9 mark during regular season play last winter. Remember top-ranked Florida, which were loaded with outstanding seniors, became the first team in SEC history to go 18-0 in conference action after defeating Kentucky 84-65 on last March 8 in Gainesville?

Then, as you'll recall, the Wildcats roared with a stunning 7-2 performance in March Madness with Aaron Harrison shooting game-winning downtown jumpers. Kentucky finished as the national runners-up after losing to UConn 60-54 in the finals.

Sophomore guard Aaron Harrison said his team's remarkable run this season has been great and his teammates are getting anxious for March Madness.

"We’re just excited to get into the tournaments, and excited about just making a run in the postseason," he said last Monday afternoon. "Just getting prepared for that, really. I’m definitely excited for March and just the atmosphere. Just can’t wait for it to get here."

Harrison -- who is the team's leading scorer with 11.2-point average, going into Saturday's matchup with Arkansas -- agreed the Wildcats are much further along than it was last season at the same point.

"We bought in a lot earlier this year, and it’s just a lot easier," he said.

His brother, Andrew Harrison, said having confidence has made a big difference this time.

“Having confidence, really," said Andrew, who is among the SEC leaders with 111 assists. "When you have people who have been there before, you can’t really go wrong as long as you stay hungry and have confidence in yourself."

Andrew said this season has been a special one.

“It’s fun," he said. "Like I said, you have to take it one game at a time, or anybody can be beat. It’s not like we’re so cocky or anything like that. We just believe in ourselves and we work hard or harder than anyone in the country."

Aaron thought the current campaign has gone much better and more fun than he had expected.

"I mean, no one would ever expect us to be 27-0, really, and having a good time," he said before the MSU contest. "Just being on the best team in the country and just going out winning games. Just been fun."

While Andrew agreed the season has been fun, he cautioned that the Cats are not taking things for granted.

"You have to take it one game at a time, or anybody can be beat," he said. "It’s not like we’re so cocky or anything like that. We just believe in ourselves and we work hard or harder than anyone in the country."

Andrew and his brother, by the way, reached a career milestone this week. They made the cover of Sports Illustrated for Kids magazine. The brothers remembered getting copies of the publication when they were kids.

They liked the cover. "I saw it. It was pretty funny," said Andrew.

Andrew said he will be reflective after the season "as long as we finish it the right way. Like I said, we’re just taking it one game at a time and enjoying ourselves right now."

And Aaron was asked about his prediction for the next several weeks. "It’s been a great story so far, so we’ll see," he said.

* * *

With March Madness just around the corner, it also means baseball is warming up as well.

Are you getting some sort of a baseball fever especially after that big snow we have seen in Kentucky and elsewhere?

Well, the annual yearbooks published by Athlon Sports, Lindy's Sports and Sporting News will help you get excited, and they are now available at most newsstands and online.

As usual, the colorful publications are still very good. They are loaded with predictions, team capsules, feature articles and statistics as well as the top prospects.

In the National League division races, Washington, St. Louis and Los Angeles are the popular choices to win its respective division. The only exception is the rising Chicago Cubs, who are picked by the Sporting News to capture the Central Division.

Not sure about the Cubs winning the division title at this point. If this was 2016, I might agree. But right now, the improved Cubs, now managed by popular Joe Maddon, still have some question marks.

As for the NL Wild Card teams, Miami, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and St. Louis are among the leading teams expected to go to the playoffs if they don't win their division.

The Cincinnati Reds, meanwhile, could surprise some folks in 2015 if they stay healthy, but will likely struggle. All three magazines have picked the Reds to finish last in the five-team Central Division.

In the American League, the 200-page yearbooks picked Los Angeles Angels, Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers to win the league crown. New faces like the Chicago White Sox and the Seattle Mariners could show up in the playoffs.

As the umpire would say, Let's Play Ball!!

Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle360.com online magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle. He can be reached via e-mail at KySportsStyle360@gmail.com.

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