The story seems to be the same every season at Kentucky: Lose star players to the NBA, replace them with another group of one-and-doners, compete for a national championship.
The Wildcats changed the script this season: This year, the fabulous freshmen will be surrounded by other former McDonald’s All-Americans who played for the NCAA title just seven months ago — a team so deep and talented that coach John Calipari is considering a platoon system.
Kentucky was the runaway No. 1 in The Associated Press preseason Top 25 released Friday, becoming the fourth program to earn the honor in consecutive seasons.
“It’s something for our kids to live up to,” Calipari said. “At the end of the day, you’ve got to play the games and figure it out.”
Kentucky earned 52 first-place votes from the 65-member panel in landing its fourth preseason No. 1. The Wildcats also were No. 1 in 1995-96, when they won the national championship, and in 1980-81.
Kentucky joins UCLA (1966-69, 1971-74), UNLV (1990-91) and North Carolina (2008-09) to be named No. 1 consecutive seasons since the AP preseason poll started in 1961-62.
Arizona is ranked No. 2 and received five first-place votes after adding a strong recruiting class to a team that came within seconds of reaching the Final Four last season.
Wisconsin, which returns most of last season’s Final Four team, has its highest preseason ranking ever at No. 3. The Badgers received eight first-place votes, but are 35 points behind Arizona in the poll.
No. 4 Duke added a strong recruiting class headed by Jahlil Okafor and is ranked for the 137th straight week. Reloaded Kansas is No. 5, with North Carolina, Florida, Louisville, Virginia and Texas rounding out the top 10. Virginia is in the preseason top 10 for the first time since Ralph Sampson’s senior season in 1982-83, when it was No. 1.
“I think there are probably seven teams that all could be No. 1 in the country,” Calipari said.
Wichita State, a Final Four team two seasons ago, is No. 11, followed by Villanova, Gonzaga, Iowa State, Virginia Commonwealth, San Diego State, defending national champion Connecticut, Michigan State, Oklahoma and Ohio State.
Rounding out the Top 25 are Nebraska, SMU, Syracuse, Michigan, Harvard and Utah.
They’ll all be chasing Kentucky, at least at the start.
The Wildcats were No. 1 heading into last season after Coach Cal pulled the strings on another best-in-the-nation recruiting class. They lived up to expectations, too, overcoming a midseason slump to reach the national championship game, where they lost 60-54 to UConn.
But a funny thing happened during the offseason: Instead of all those freshman packing up for the NBA after one season, most decided to stick around.
Kentucky lost forward Julius Randle and guard James Young to the NBA. In a bit of a surprise, twin guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison decided to return after their freshman seasons and junior 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein decided to stick around, too.
With forwards Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee, along with 7-footer Dakari Johnson also coming back, the Wildcats were going to be in good shape regardless of what the recruiting class looked like.
But, of course, this is Kentucky and more star recruits made their way to Lexington: forwards Karl-Anthony Towns and Trey Lyles, guards Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis.
The Wildcats are 12 deep, talented and confident.
“We are far ahead of last year,” Andrew Harrison said.
But they’re far from the only team with a shot at the title.
Arizona was a last-second shot away from reaching the Final Four last season, an impressive run considering versatile forward Brandon Ashley sat out the final 16 games with a foot injury. He’s healthy and leads a solid core of returning players that includes point guard T.J. McConnell and 7-footer Kaleb Tarczewski.
Coach Sean Miller also brought in another stellar class, headed by athletic forward Stanley Johnson.
“We have the makings of a team that can go on and do some great things,” Miller said.
So do the third-ranked Badgers. Actually, they already have. Wisconsin made a somewhat-unexpected run to the Final Four last season and will have one of the most experienced teams in the country.
Leading them will be no-nonsense coach Bo Ryan and Frank Kaminsky, the 6-foot-10 senior who skipped a shot at the NBA for another chance at an NCAA title.
“I don’t see our guys talking any differently or acting any differently on the practice floor simply because other people are mentioning that we might be pretty good,” Ryan said.
The same thing is being said about the Kentucky Wildcats — just like last season.
AP Sports Writers Genaro Armas and Gary Graves contributed to this story.