Kentucky might not be as good this season as last season. But ESPN analysts Jay Bilas and Seth Greenberg offered this encouraging thought Monday: Neither is any other team.
"It's a very different year than last year," Bilas said on a teleconference. "Last year at this time, at least we felt we knew who the separated teams were. We talked about Kentucky having a chance to run the table."
And Kentucky set a record by winning its first 38 games. (Sticklers for accuracy know Wisconsin beat UK in the national semifinals.)
"This year, we don't have that same feeling," Bilas said. "We don't know. We have to put somebody at No. 1. But it's not clear cut. I'm not sure I'd put any team in the top six from the start of last year (in the top six this pre-season)."
Greenberg agreed, saying as many as 14 teams could be in college basketball's top echelon this coming season.
Greenberg divided the likely contenders into two categories:
■ What he called "upperclassmen teams" that might want to add a newcomer or two to a rotation of veterans. Kansas, North Carolina, Iowa State and Utah are among the teams that fit this description, he said.
■ What he called "emerging teams" that have largely a new cast of players that must coalesce into an effective unit. Kentucky, Duke, Arizona and California are among the teams that fit this description, he said.
"How much better will these teams be in January and February when they develop an identity and they develop a trust," Greenberg said of the emerging teams. "When you put the two (types of teams) together, it makes for a really intriguing and exciting season."
Bilas also sounded intrigued.
"I don't think (Kentucky is) as good this year," he said. "And I don't think their potential is as great as last year's team ...
"For any team that emerges, there aren't as many obstacles this year. ... I don't see the strength at the top that we saw last year."
Vandy in the Final Four?
As for the Southeastern Conference, Bilas and Greenberg favored Kentucky. But they saw several challengers.
Greenberg touted Vanderbilt as "my sleeper team for the Final Four."
Vanderbilt better fits the description of an "upperclassmen team" than an emerging team.
"Any team that shoots it like them, (and has a) post player like Damian Jones and a point guard under-appreciated like Wade Baldwin, that team really has a chance to be special," Greenberg said.
Greenberg also spoke highly of Florida.
"A lot better than people think ... ," he said of the Gators. "Playing a lot faster will help Kasey Hill. The more he's in the half-court, the less effective he is."
Bilas also likes Vanderbilt. "Fully capable of winning the league," he said of the Commodores. "I still think Kentucky is the best team. But that doesn't mean Vanderbilt can't do it."
LSU has "the best player in the country in Ben Simmons," Bilas added.
Bilas: Ulis a pro
When asked about how Tyler Ulis will be a different player this season, Bilas said, "I don't think he's any different. He's older and it's his team now."
Of course, Ulis shared point guard duties with Andrew Harrison last season.
"He's a great college player," Bilas said of Ulis, "and I think he will be a pro because he can control a game with the ball in his hands (and) can really impact a game defensively."