JAMIE H. VAUGHT: Big Blue Nation Ready For Basketball; A Quick Prediction for Football Wildcats
It's never too early to talk about UK basketball -- especially in the Big Blue Nation -- even though the college football campaign has just gotten warmed up.
You couldn't help but notice at least three preseason basketball yearbooks – featuring one or two Wildcat players on their regional covers -- have already hit the newsstands. It seems that we are seeing these hoops yearbooks coming out earlier every year.
Gracing the cover of Athlon Sports (athlonsports.com) are senior Alex Poythress and sophomore Tyler Ulis as both former McDonald's All-Americans will be guiding the youthful Kentucky squad with eight newcomers on the roster this winter.
In Lindy's Sports (lindyssports.com), Ulis is the cover boy, sharing with Louisville's Mangok Mathiang. Sporting News (sportingnews.com), meanwhile, has Poythress on the cover with a small inset picture of new Tennessee coach Rick Barnes. Poythress, by the way, has already earned his undergraduate marketing degree in just three years. Good for him.
As expected, coach John Calipari’s deeply talented club is a leading contender for the 2016 national title. Two publications have UK at No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, while Athlon has picked the Wildcats to capture it all.
Making the preseason All-American teams include a couple of UK star rookies -- 6-11 Skal Labissiere of Haiti (second-team by Athlon and Sporting News) and 6-4 Jamal Murray of Canada (third team by Sporting News). Another rookie from the SEC to watch out for is LSU's 6-10 Ben Simmons of Australia, who was chosen first-team and third-team preseason All-American by the respective yearbooks.
All three rookies, not surprisingly, are likely to stay only one year in college before moving on to NBA as lottery draft picks.
As of late last week (Thursday, Sept. 10), DraftExpress.com had a mock 2016 NBA draft showing Labissiere at No. 1 with Simmons at No. 2 and Murray at No. 6.
And don't overlook Vanderbilt’s big man -- 6-11 junior Damian Jones -- who is also a preseason third-team All-American. He is a No. 16 NBA draft pick, according to DraftExpress.com
With Kentucky leading the SEC pack, what about the conference race for second place? To summarize, only Kentucky, LSU, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M are the unanimous picks among the SEC Top 5 in these publications.
In women’s college basketball, South Carolina is the top contender for NCAA title with UConn at No. 2, according to Sporting News. But Lindy's has flip-flopped with UConn leading the nation with USC at second place. The Huskies will travel to Columbia in early February for a huge showdown with the coach Dawn Staley's Gamecocks.
Coach Matthew Mitchell's Wildcats will be a Top 20 team, according to Athlon and Lindy's (but not Sporting News). And the women’s team will face a couple of national powers Duke and Louisville at Rupp Arena in December matchups. Along with a road game with a tough Arizona State squad, the Wildcats will have a couple of conference dates – home and away -- with South Carolina.
Each of the yearbooks have interesting articles along with the usual team capsules and recruiting lists. For instance, Athlon has exclusive interviews (in question-and-answer format) with Tyler Ulis and Ben Simmons. In addition, it also published a fascinating story, titled “Courts Gone Wild,” referring to colorful hardwood floors found at several college gyms around the country. One athletic director commented that a basketball floor can serve as a billboard.
Lindy's has a feature about the SEC coaches along with customary looks at Top 25 players at each position. Sporting News has an interview with charismatic Auburn coach Bruce Pearl.
Meanwhile, Sporting News is doing something different this time with its 240-page yearbook by combining college, prep and NBA basketball. And you can flip over to the back cover (upside down) for the NBA preview, which includes scouting reports for all 30 teams, and Stephen Curry of Golden State is the NBA cover boy.
"We wanted our readers to be able to cover all of their basketball interests—preps, college and pros—inside one magazine so we added 28 extra pages for NBA," editor Scott Smith told this columnist.
Smith also pointed out the Sporting News has "brought back the Division I schedules, at least all of the ones that were available at press time."
If you are a hoops junkie with $25 to spend, get all three colorful yearbooks and you'll be fired up for basketball. * * *
The football Cats are entering Saturday night’s matchup with a rare 2-0 start, facing the once-mighty Gators, who are still adjusting with their new boss in Jim McElwain, the former offensive coordinator at Alabama who once coached at U of L during the early 2000s. Florida struggled against East Carolina last Saturday, winning only by a touchdown. As I mentioned in my recent column, the Gators will be a middle-of-the-pack squad in the seven-team East Division.
A quick fearless forecast for the UK-Florida game: Kentucky by 3.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com online magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.