Sports

With the season near, freshmen in focus as Kentucky looks to live up to the top billing

  • ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, NOV. 2-3 - FILE - In this Oct. 15, 2013, file photo, Kentucky's Aaron Harrison, right, prepares to take a shot next to his twin brother Andrew Harrison after the team's NCAA college basketball media day in Lexington, Ky. Kentucky's freshmen class features forward Julius Randle, considered a possible No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA draft, identical twin guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison, and swingman James Young. They earned the third preseason No. 1 ranking in school history.  (AP Photo/James Crisp, File)

    ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, NOV. 2-3 - FILE - In this Oct. 15, 2013, file photo, Kentucky's Aaron Harrison, right, prepares to take a shot next to his twin brother Andrew Harrison after the team's NCAA college basketball media day in Lexington, Ky. Kentucky's freshmen class features forward Julius Randle, considered a possible No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA draft, identical twin guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison, and swingman James Young. They earned the third preseason No. 1 ranking in school history. (AP Photo/James Crisp, File)  (The Associated Press)

  • ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, NOV. 2-3 - FILE - In this Oct. 29, 2013, file photo, Kansas guard Andrew Wiggins (22) drives on Pittsburg State guard Ethan Cordray, left, during the second half of an exhibition NCAA college basketball game in Lawrence, Kan. Wiggins has Kansas fans harking back to the days when freshman Danny Manning led the Jayhawks to the national championship.  (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner, File)

    ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, NOV. 2-3 - FILE - In this Oct. 29, 2013, file photo, Kansas guard Andrew Wiggins (22) drives on Pittsburg State guard Ethan Cordray, left, during the second half of an exhibition NCAA college basketball game in Lawrence, Kan. Wiggins has Kansas fans harking back to the days when freshman Danny Manning led the Jayhawks to the national championship. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner, File)  (The Associated Press)

  • ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, NOV. 2-3 - FILE - In this March 30, 2013, file photo, Stanford's Chiney Ogwumike drives past Georgia defenders in the first half of a regional semifinal in the NCAA women's college basketball tournament in Spokane, Wash. With Skylar Diggins, Elena Delle Donne and Brittney Griner gone to the WNBA, new players will step into the national spotlight, including Stanford's Ogwumike, Baylor's Odyssey Sims and Connecticut's Breanna Stewart. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

    ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, NOV. 2-3 - FILE - In this March 30, 2013, file photo, Stanford's Chiney Ogwumike drives past Georgia defenders in the first half of a regional semifinal in the NCAA women's college basketball tournament in Spokane, Wash. With Skylar Diggins, Elena Delle Donne and Brittney Griner gone to the WNBA, new players will step into the national spotlight, including Stanford's Ogwumike, Baylor's Odyssey Sims and Connecticut's Breanna Stewart. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)  (The Associated Press)

John Calipari has been here before and it ended well.

The last time the Kentucky coach had a freshman class this talented, the season ended with a national championship.

The eight-man class, which includes six McDonald's All-Americans, has to make Kentucky fans forget last season which ended in a first-round NIT loss at Robert Morris, and think back to two years ago when a starting five of three freshmen — including Anthony Davis — and two sophomores won the NCAA title then all left for the NBA.

"Every team we play will be more experienced than us," Calipari said. "But if we become one unit, play with one heartbeat and a love for each another, we will be unbreakable."

Kentucky's freshmen class features forward Julius Randle, considered a possible No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA draft, identical twin guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison, and swingman James Young. They earned the third preseason No. 1 ranking in school history.

There will be other freshmen who could make an impact on the chase for the NCAA title.

Andrew Wiggins has Kansas fans harking back to the days when Danny Manning led the Jayhawks to the national championship. Chicago native Jabari Parker will fit smoothly into Duke's offense which this season promises to be a lot more uptempo.

And making comparisons of the two won't involve guessing because Duke and Kansas meet in Chicago on Nov. 12. The other game at the United Center that night has Kentucky, one of the youngest teams, and Michigan State, one of the most experienced with six of its top seven back, in a 1-vs.-2 matchup, the first since No. 2 Tennessee beat Memphis on Feb. 24, 2008.

And there's a bunch of other quality early season games: Kansas-Florida and Kentucky-Baylor in the Big 12-SEC Challenge; a possible Louisville-North Carolina tilt in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off; a possible Gonzaga-Syracuse in the EA Sports Maui Invitational; and a possible Duke-Arizona in the NIT Season Tip-Off.

There will be plenty of big games before conference play gets under way. Oh yeah, about conference play. There's a lot of changes and some will take a while to get used to.

The non-football schools at the Big East broke off and became part of a 10-team league, one that no longer has Connecticut, Syracuse, Notre Dame, Louisville and Pittsburgh. UConn and Louisville are part of the fledgling American Athletic Conference while the others went to the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Then there's Conference USA — eight new members join and four, including Memphis, which dominated the league for the last decade, leave with three more going after the season — and the Western Athletic Conference — seven schools are headed for various conferences this season and there will be six newcomers to make it a nine-team league.

There will be some stability.

Creighton senior forward Doug McDermott has a chance to become the 11th player to be a three-time All-America but he will do it in a new conference, the Big East. Senior guard Russ Smith will lead Louisville in its national title defense. Aaron Craft will be back for one more season of floor-diving and all-out hustling with Ohio State.

Marcus Smart was probably the highest-rated NBA draft pick to return to school and his sophomore season at Oklahoma State will see him competing with Wiggins as he defends Big 12 player of the year honors.

"If he's the best player like people say, if that's the case, in order for me to be the best, I have to beat the best, right?" Smart said at conference media day. "If he's the best player, fans will get their money's worth when we play Kansas."

The first game is Jan. 18, at Kansas, with the rematch at Oklahoma State March 1.

That will be one of a few conference matchups to keep an eye on: Kentucky-Florida in the Southeastern Conference, Michigan State-Michigan in the Big Ten and Duke-Syracuse in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Louisville and Memphis, one of the more underrated college basketball rivalries, will be in the same in the same league, the American Athletic Conference, for one year before Louisville heads for the ACC.

The season gets under way Nov. 8 and it ends April 7 at AT&T Stadium in suburban Dallas with a record crowd of better than 80,000 expected. The semifinals will be telecast on TBS for the first time and the championship game will again be on CBS.

The last time the Final Four was played in Dallas was 1986 when Louisville, led by freshman "Never Nervous" Pervis Ellison, beat Duke, making its first Final Four appearance under coach Mike Krzyzewski, in the championship game.