UK Men's Basketball

Return to No. 1 puts Kentucky basketball on historic plateau

Kentucky Wildcats guard Isaiah Briscoe (13), Skal Labissiere (1), and Marcus Lee (00) combined to shut down Wright State guard Mark Alstork (23) on Friday, Nov. 20, 2015.
Kentucky Wildcats guard Isaiah Briscoe (13), Skal Labissiere (1), and Marcus Lee (00) combined to shut down Wright State guard Mark Alstork (23) on Friday, Nov. 20, 2015. mcornelison@herald-leader.com

As radio play-by-play man Tom Leach might scream, the No. 1 ranking has come home to Kentucky!!!

With North Carolina losing last weekend, Kentucky supplanted the Tar Heels as the No. 1 team in this week’s media poll conducted by The Associated Press. It had the feel of a homecoming, as assistant coach John Robic pointed out Monday.

“I think that’s five of the seven years we’ve been here at some point in time we’ve had that honor,” Robic said. “It’s kind of a neat thing, to be honest with you.”

It’s almost an unprecedented thing. Even for Kentucky, being ranked No. 1 at some point of five seasons in a seven-year span is an unusual distinction. You have to go back to 1948-49 through 1954-55 to find similarly consistent excellence.

Robic, who was substituting for John Calipari at a news conference, credited the UK coach, players and staff for the current five-in-seven roll. The Calipari-coached Kentucky teams not ranked No. 1 were the Cats of 2010-11 (they got hot late and reached the Final Four) and 2012-13 (ranked as high as No. 3 early before Nerlens Noel’s torn ACL caused the season to crash).

“Not to make a big deal of it,” Robic said of the latest No. 1 ranking. “It’s November. But it’s great.”

With Kentucky’s high turnover of players each season, a No. 1 ranking does not become routine for the players, Robic said.

For those who count such things, Kentucky increased the times it’s been voted No. 1 to 114, according to the AP. Only UCLA (134) and Duke (127) have been No. 1 in more polls. The AP began its college basketball poll in the 1948-49 season.

Junior forward Marcus Lee downplayed the ranking.

“It’s honestly just a number,” he said. “Each team is just as equal right now. At this point of the season, rankings don’t really matter till March. Then at that moment, it doesn’t really matter till the last four teams.”

Lee did not embrace the idea of the ranking serving as validation for Calipari again fashioning a highly efficient team from disparate, though highly regarded freshmen. The Cats, who received 59 of 65 first-place votes, also count on holdover players thrust into more prominent roles.

“Honestly, it means nothing to us because we know we still have a long way to go,” Lee said. “We are a new team. … We know we’re not where we’re meant to be right now.”

Boston University Coach Joe Jones, whose team plays Kentucky on Tuesday night, saluted the way Calipari annually transforms a collection of heralded freshmen with one-and-done aspirations into cohesive units.

“It’s unbelievable the job Cal really does with their stuff and their program …,” Jones said. “People don’t really understand.”

Jones saw it first hand last season when that freshman-dependent UK team beat Boston U. 89-65.

“I was just impressed with the way they went about their business,” he said. “They tried to get good shots every time down the floor. They weren’t forcing it. They were playing as an unit. They were buying into what they were asking them to do. I was more impressed with that than anything.”

Of course, it’s not all seamless joy. After UK beat Wright State 78-63 last Friday, Calipari lamented “the step back” the Cats took. He said there had to be 20 better teams in the country.

Lee explained.

“After three years, I’ve noticed that he doesn’t back up in any way,” he said of Calipari. “He goes for perfection. He wants you to give your best all the time.

“When he sees you’re not doing what he asks of you and the team asks of you, he loses his mind. That’s what great coaches do. They push you.”

Unwittingly, perhaps, the Cats set the standard by which Calipari measured the team by beating Duke earlier last week.

“The expectation grew at that moment,” Lee said, “and we took a step backward (in beating Wright State). That’s not something we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to take that other step forward.”

Lee was philosophical about Kentucky not advancing its quality of play after the Duke game. (The thought of Calipari thinking a team can’t afford to be philosophical echoed in the mind.)

“It happens sometimes with athletes,” Lee said. “It happens sometimes in games. You’re mentally not there.”

The gravity of such a slip will be determined in future games, he said.

“It depends on the game after, and if you’re ready to pick it back up again,” Lee said, “and continue to do better.”

Is Kentucky the No. 1 team? The best team in the country?

“We have no idea,” Lee said. “We have a really far way to go to be the best team in the country.”

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

Tuesday

Boston U. at Kentucky

When: 9 p.m.

TV: SEC Network

Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

Records: Kentucky 4-0, Boston U. 2-2

Series: Kentucky leads 4-0

Last meeting: Kentucky won 89-65 on Nov. 21, 2014, in Rupp Arena.

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