The biggest upset in the history of the modern Kentucky-Louisville football rivalry.
Lamar Jackson’s Heisman Trophy.
Northern Kentucky’s breakthrough trip to the men’s basketball NCAA Tournament in its first season of Division I eligibility.
Those are among the lasting memories supplied by Kentucky college sports for 2016-17. Though baseball and track and field could yet produce more highlights for schools in the commonwealth, it is not too soon to identify the key stories to watch in 2017-18 at each of the seven NCAA Division I universities in our state.
The big question: After Mark Stoops led UK to its first winning football season (7-6) since 2009, can the Kentucky coach take another step forward by propelling the Wildcats to an eight-win regular season for the first time since 1984?
Another story to watch: Even in the one-and-done era of Kentucky men’s basketball, John Calipari’s best teams — 2011-12 and 2014-15 — have boasted a core of proven returnees. In 2017-18, UK will have only three returning scholarship players — sophomore forwards Wenyen Gabriel (4.6 points per game), Sacha Killeya-Jones (2.7) and Tai Wynyard (0.7) — and will be heavily reliant on eight freshmen.
The big question: In recent years, the NCAA has suspended Hall of Fame coaches Larry Brown (then at SMU) and Jim Boeheim (Syracuse) nine games as a result of rules violations committed in their programs. With the NCAA expected to rule soon in the “escorts for recruits in the basketball dorm” scandal at Louisville, does a similar fate await Rick Pitino?
Another story to watch: Ohio State running back Archie Griffin won the Heisman Trophy in 1974 and again in ’75. No one else has ever won college football’s most prestigious individual award twice. In 2017, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson is the only player who can change that.
The big question: After Rick Stansbury rocked the college basketball world with boffo recruiting that included signing a McDonald’s All-American in 7-footer Mitchell Robinson, can the Western Kentucky men’s basketball coach get all of the talented newcomers to jell into a cohesive team?
Another story to watch: New Western football coach Mike Sanford Jr. inherits a Hilltoppers program that has won 29 of its last 35 games, three bowls and two Conference-USA championships. Sanford’s challenge at WKU is clearing a bar set sky high.
The big question: After Mark Elder suffered through a 3-8 slog in his first season as EKU football coach, can the former Butch Jones assistant use a well-regarded 2017 recruiting class to get the Colonels program moving forward in year two?
Another story to watch: With former Lafayette High school star Jackson Davis, a transfer from Butler, joining returning standouts Nick Mayo and Asante Gist, third-year Eastern men’s basketball coach Dan McHale will try to lead EKU to its first men’s NCAA tourney berth since 2014.
The big question: After Preston Spradlin inherited a 2-7 team and went 12-9 as interim MSU men’s basketball coach last season, the Morehead State administration rewarded the 30-year-old former UK aide with the Eagles’ full-time job. Can the young coach reward that faith with immediate success in 2017-18?
Another story to watch: After Greg Todd won 12 and 10 games, respectively, in his first two seasons as Morehead State women’s hoops coach, the ex-Transylvania and Lexington Catholic head man led the Eagles to 21 wins last season. Todd will try to parlay that momentum into a push for Morehead State’s first-ever trip to the women’s NCAA Tournament.
The big question: Since John Brannen’s NKU men’s basketball program is returning the nucleus of a team that advanced to the 2017 NCAA Tournament, how will the Norse handle the expectations that follow success?
Another story to watch: Former UK assistant Camryn Whitaker didn’t do a lot of winning (9-22) in her first year as NKU women’s hoops coach, but her energetic recruiting has yielded eight new players in her 2017 recruiting class and at least two well-regarded in-state commitments (so far) for 2018.
The big question: After going 33-31 in his first two seasons as Murray men’s hoops coach, can Matt McMahon get MSU back toward the level of success produced by his immediate predecessors, Billy Kennedy (107-53) and Steve Prohm (104-28)?
Another story to watch: After Rechelle Turner led Murray High School girls’ basketball to 460 wins, four 1st Region championships and the 2016 All “A” Classic title, the coach is moving directly into NCAA Division I head coaching at Murray State. This winter, Kentucky high school coaches with aspirations of upward mobility should be rooting hard for Turner.