JAMIE H. VAUGHT: Big Blue Nation Ready For Basketball; Preseason Yearbooks Expecting Another Banner
This week is a very exciting time for college basketball fans, especially in hoops-crazy Kentucky.
As you know, UK is having its annual huge showcase called the Big Blue Madness on Friday night, officially tipping off its 2016-17 campaign, and the rabid fans will be there early to check on the players for the Wildcats’ men and women teams. If you can’t make it, you can watch the 7 p.m. event on the SEC Network.
In addition, Kentucky is giving away several posters -- including the ones on Adolph Rupp and John Calipari (above) & Isaac Humphries and Bam Adebayo (below) -- at Big Blue Madness, and beginning on Saturday morning at Kroger locations throughout the state.
If you’re a true fan, you’d also enjoy getting a copy or two of your favorite college basketball yearbook -- Athlon Sports, Lindy’s Sports and Sporting News -- which recently hit the newsstands. Like many older fans, I sure remember getting a copy of now-defunct Street & Smith’s basketball yearbook, arguably considered the premier publication of its type at the time, at a local drug store. That was during the early days when we didn’t have the Internet or cable/satellite television and Street & Smith’s was a Bible of sorts for many basketball observers.
As for the 2016-17 preseason publications, one of
the more interesting pieces that I read was a question-and-answer interview with one of my favorite people in sports, ex-UK boss Tubby Smith, who is featured prominently in the Sporting News. The gentlemanly Smith is now the head coach at Memphis, the former school of Kentucky’s John Calipari, after a successful three-year stint at Texas Tech. He is gunning to be the first mentor to guide six different schools to NCAA Tournament.
In a wide-ranging interview with Pete Williams, Smith – who guided the Wildcats for 10 years from 1997 to 2007, winning 76 percent of the games with one national title, five SEC titles, five SEC tournament titles and six Sweet 16 appearances -- discussed many topics, including the stressful coaching profession, whether or not Memphis would be last job, among others.
Interestingly, Smith, now 65 years old, said the coaching job isn’t as stressful as it was before “because the recruiting has been reduced. It used to be you were gone all the time; it was year-around.” Changes in recruiting calendar made the difference, Smith explained.
Asked if this will be his last coaching job, Smith said, “Who knows? That’s a good question.” Because of his love of the game, Smith, who was named the Sporting News’ national coach of the year last March, said he plans to coach as long as he could.
Nevertheless, it was just a small portion of the article about Smith and you will enjoy reading the entire interview in the yearbook.
In addition to ranking Duke and Kentucky at No. 1 and No 2, respectively, in men’s preseason Top 25 poll, both Sporting News (SN) and Athlon yearbooks also like UK women. SN has coach Matthew Mitchell’s club at No. 10 with Athlon placing Kentucky at No. 15. Wildcat senior guard Makayla Epps is a preseason All-American choice in both publications (first-team and second-team). Another senior, forward Evelyn Akhator, also received preseason All-American honors (third-team).
Another enjoyable article is Athlon’s top storylines (10 things to watch) for this season, including Coach K vs. Coach Cal and Tubby Smith.
Lindy’s is informative, as usual, with several feature articles and its Top 25 player ratings at five different positions (center, power forward, small forward, shooting guard and point guard). The freshmen are not included.
SEC is still not getting much respect nationally. If the preseason ratings are any indication, the league appears to be very weak again this winter like last season when SEC only sent three schools – Texas A&M, Kentucky and Vanderbilt -- to the Big Dance.
Unlike the other two yearbooks which only had one SEC team – Kentucky -- in the preseason Top 25, Lindy’s has No. 5 Kentucky, No. 14 Florida and No. 21 Georgia. The Oregon Ducks, led by 6-5 junior and preseason All-American Dillon Brooks, is ranked No. 1 in Lindy’s poll.
Lindy’s also has Kentucky No. 3 among the Top 10 frontcourts in the nation with 6-9 senior Derek Willis, 7-0 sophomore Isaac Humphries and 6-10 freshmen Bam Adebayo expected to lead the “big men” charge after the smallish Wildcats struggled on the boards last season.
De’Aaron Fox, a 6-3 freshman, is the only UK player chosen to one of the preseason All-American teams. A point guard from Houston, Texas, Fox made the second-team honors. Fox obviously has a very tough act in following 2015-16 SEC Player of the Year Tyler Ulis, who has since moved on to NBA’s Phoenix Suns, but the rookie has the talent to run the ship.
Meanwhile, Murray State and Belmont is expected to do well in Ohio Valley Conference, winning the respective divisions. The yearbooks are forecasting a middle-of-the-road campaign for Sean Woods’ Morehead State and Dan McHale’s Eastern Kentucky in the East Division.
Sporting News also published a preseason small college poll. Interestingly, three Kentucky colleges are placed in NAIA’s Top 10 rankings with Campbellsville at No. 4, Lindsey Wilson No. 5 and Georgetown No. 10. Coaching at Georgetown is Chris Briggs, who served as graduate assistant as well as student manager at UK.
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.