- Associated Press - Thursday, October 31, 2013

LEXINGTON, Ky. —  Every time Kentucky 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.

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.

“A 1-2 matchup is a win-win deal,” Spartans 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.”

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