JAMIE H. VAUGHT: National Media Expects Banner Year for Calipari's Wildcats
(Note: This column also appeared in KyForward.com.)
If you're like me as a college hoops fan, you certainly would look forward every fall when the popular college basketball yearbooks hit the newsstands or become available online.
My love for preseason yearbooks began when I was a kid. I had to ask my mom or dad to buy a copy and they obliged. My first yearbook, I believe, was the one about major league baseball by Street & Smith's, and then I eventually branched out to yearbooks about other sports. Even though I’m much older now, I still enjoy them. Just like the old days.
The Big Blue Nation would be pleased to find out the 2018-19 basketball publications, as expected, are forecasting a banner year for coach John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats with several outlets picking UK as preseason No. 1.
And Nashville-based Athlon Sports has Kentucky at No. 2, behind top-ranked Kansas, in its preseason Top 25 poll. Joining the Wildcats in the top 10 are two SEC teams -- No. 6 Tennessee and No. 9 Auburn.
Street & Smith’s, on the other hand, selects UK at No. 5, behind rivals No. 3 Duke and No. 4 Tennessee. Kansas and Virginia are No. 1 and No. 2, respectively. The Charlotte, N.C.-based publication also includes 47 pages of NBA coverage.
This winter’s Wildcats, featuring a healthy dose of valuable experience and a handful of freshman superstars, may be the fourth great team Calipari will have at Kentucky. Calipari’s other notable teams in his nine years at UK are 2010 (Elite Eight, 35-3 record with John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins), 2012 (NCAA title, 38-2 mark with Anthony Davis) and 2015 (Final Four, 38-1 record with Karl-Anthony Towns and Devin Booker).
Kentucky rookie, 6-10 forward EJ Montgomery, is profiled in a two-page interview with Athlon Sports. In 2016, Montgomery committed to Auburn mainly because his sister, Brandy, was a standout for the women's team there.
But when the FBI probe on college hoops became public last fall, Montgomery, a McDonald’s All-American who played at Wheeler High School in Fort Pierce, Fla., changed his mind about Auburn and eventually signed with UK.
His real name, by the way, is Efrem. Not many people know about it.
“Mostly everyone calls me EJ,” he said in Athlon Sports. “Pretty much the only people that call me Efrem are teachers on the first day of school, but then they hear other people calling me EJ, and then that changes quickly.”
As for preseason All-American honors, Street & Smith’s has three players from SEC. They are Tennessee’s 6-7 junior Grant Williams on the first team, UK’s 6-8 graduate Reid Travis (second team), and LSU’s 5-11 sophomore guard Tremont Waters (third team).
Athlon Sports, meanwhile, has Williams as second-team preseason All-American with Arkansas 6-11 sophomore forward Daniel Gafford getting the third-team honors.
Besides UK, there is another good team from the state to watch out for. That’s coach Rick Stansbury’s Western Kentucky club which is one of the preseason favorites to capture the Conference USA title. The Hilltoppers, who are coming off a 27-11 NIT campaign, have sophomore standout Taveion Hollingsworth, Auburn graduate transfer Desean Murray, and 6-11 five-star freshman Charles Bassey, a shot-blocker who was rated as the No. 3 overall recruit in the 2018 class. Bassey was cleared to play by NCAA in late August.
Added Stansbury in mid-June when WKU signed Bassey, who had reclassified to 2018 class, "We're excited about the talent of basketball player he is, but most importantly, the type of person and student he is. He's a 3.9 GPA student with great character, and we look forward to having him in our program."
Ex-Xavier boss Chris Mack is the new head coach at Louisville, a popular choice, but his rebuilding Cardinals are not projected to do whole lot this season, finishing in the middle of the tough Atlantic Coast Conference race. Street & Smith’s interviewed Mack for a two-page interview.
Former UK coach Tubby Smith has moved on to his alma mater, High Point, in North Carolina from Memphis. In his first year as the head coach at High Point, his Panthers are expected to be in the middle of the pack in Big South Conference, according to Athlon and Street & Smith’s yearbooks.
Saint Louis, led by third-year coach and ex-UK standout Travis Ford, is picked as one of the top two teams in Atlantic 10 Conference.
College basketball season begins on Tuesday, November 6 -- Election Day -- when UK faces Duke in a four-team State Farm Champions Classic at Indianapolis’ Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The 9:30 p.m. (ET) showdown will be televised by ESPN. The first game of a neutral site doubleheader will feature Michigan State and Kansas, beginning at 7 p.m.
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Here are some sports books to consider for fall reading:
--While former Louisville and Kentucky basketball coach Rick Pitino recently has written his own book, titled “Pitino: My Story,” along with Seth Kaufman, there is another new book about him and the college hoops scandal. Bestselling author Michael Sokolove has come up with a new 260-page volume, titled, “The Last Temptation of Rick Pitino: A Story of Corruption, Scandal, and the Big Business of College Basketball" (Penguin Press, $28). The author, who also has written books with John Calipari and about Pete Rose in the past, has provided the inside story of the recent NCAA basketball scandal and exposed hypocrisy in big-time college sports.
--If you like a colorful biography about the real baseball legend, then you need to check “The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created” by bestselling author Jane Leavy (Harper, $32.50). Leavy conducted more than 250 interviews and uncovered numerous documents along with Ruth family records to write the 621-page volume. The author structured the book around Ruth's three-week barnstorming tour throughout the nation in 1927 shortly after the Yankee star had blasted his 60th home run. Said Leavy, "I wanted readers to be able to feel what it was like to be Babe Ruth, to be with Babe Ruth, at the height of his fame when fame, as we know it in the modern age, was new." The book also discusses Ruth's partnership with agent Christy Walsh, who wore many hats -- business manager, spin doctor, damage control wizard and surrogate father. "Christy Walsh was a major figure in Ruth's life and in the development of sports marketing as we know it today," added Leavy, who recently threw a ceremonial first pitch at the Yankee Stadium. A former staff writer for the Washington Post, the author also wrote a 2002 baseball book titled “Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy.”
--"Basketball: A Love Story" by Jackie MacMullan, Rafe Bartholomew and Dan Klores (Crown Archetype, $30) is a remarkable oral history of basketball filled with passion and heartbreak, triumph and betrayal. Two well-respected writers in MacMullan and Bartholomew collaborated with award-winning director Klores to produce a fascinating 436-page volume based on revealing interviews with basketball's all-time greats. Numerous hoops legends, coaches, executives and journalists spoke movingly about their greatest passion in the candid interviews for a multi-part ESPN Films series to be shown in fall 2018. Coaches like Phil Jackson and Coach K opened up like never before. In addition, UK folks like Pat Riley, Joe B. Hall and John Calipari were interviewed. Legendary Kentucky mentor Adolph Rupp was featured as well. If you are a basketball fan, you will enjoy this entertaining volume.
--Another sports book you may enjoy is “Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL” by Jeff Pearlman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28). The United States Football League, which lasted three seasons (1983 to ’85), was the last football league to challenge the NFL. As you may recall, the now-defunct league had potential to be great, but it didn’t work out. The 366-page hardcover is filled with entertaining stories about USFL, including New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump.
--A hoops junkie will enjoy reading “Miller Time: The Story of John Miller, a Small-Town Basketball Coach Who Inspired Dynasties” by David A. Burhenn (Sports Publishing, $24.99). Miller is a legendary high school coach in western Pennsylvania who retired with 657 career victories and four state titles. And Miller’s two sons, Sean and Archie, are currently college basketball coaches at Arizona and Indiana, respectively. UK coach John Calipari, who basically grew up with the Miller family in the Pittsburgh area, wrote the foreword for the book.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor and founder of KySportsStyle.com 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.