Men's Basketball

Commonwealth basketball teams look for magic to continue in 2014-15 season

Chastity Gooch, a senior from Franklin, figures to make WKU a contender in its first season as a Conference USA member.
Chastity Gooch, a senior from Franklin, figures to make WKU a contender in its first season as a Conference USA member. AP

Someday, you will tell your grandkids about the era of Kentucky college basketball you are living through.

Since 2011, every eligible Kentucky NCAA Division I men's basketball program — Eastern Kentucky, Kentucky, Louisville, Morehead State, Murray State and Western Kentucky — has made at least one appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Five of those schools, UK, U of L, Morehead, Murray and WKU, have victories in the Big Dance in that span.

Since 2011, UK and U of L have combined to produce two national titles and five Final Four trips between them. In the last three NCAA Tournaments, the Cats and Cards are a combined 23-3 — and two of the losses are to each other (well, two Louisville losses to Kentucky).

The commonwealth's marquee women's basketball programs have been at a high level, too. Louisville has made two trips to the national title game since 2009; Kentucky has gone to three Elite Eights in the past five seasons.

Best news for college basketball enthusiasts in Kentucky, there's every reason to think 2014-15 can keep the Bluegrass State's magic carpet ride afloat.

Let's examine some of the stories that should give the 2014-15 Kentucky college hoops season a savory flavor.

Three weeks in Big Blue heaven

The last three Saturdays of December will be about as compelling for UK men's basketball fans as it can get. Over that stretch, UK will face North Carolina (Dec. 13) in Rupp Arena; it will play UCLA in Chicago (Dec. 20); then, two days after Christmas, the Wildcats will head west across I-64 to play archrival Louisville in the KFC Yum Center.

Off Broadway

For all the spotlight that is taken up by the players at Kentucky and Louisville, here are four players from other Kentucky schools who deserve your attention:

George Fant, Western Kentucky. The burly 6-foot-6, 250-pound post player (13.3 ppg; 6.6 rpg) is back for his senior season on The Hill as WKU debuts in Conference-USA. How important was the former Warren Central High School star to Western last season? The Hilltoppers lost six of the nine games in which he did not score in double figures.

Cameron Payne, Murray State. Last season as a frosh, the 6-2 guard took over the point position and played his way (16.8 ppg; 3.6 rpg; 5.4 assists) to OVC Freshman of the Year honors. The league's coaches (and publicists) are not expecting a sophomore slump for the Memphis product: They voted Payne the 2014-15 OVC Preseason Player of the Year.

Corey Walden, Eastern Kentucky. The 6-2, 189-pound product of Daytona Beach, Fla., lit up Nashville last March during the OVC Tournament. The OVC tourney MVP hit 23 of 35 shots in three games and finished with 24 points against Murray State in the semis and a career-high 29 as the Colonels surprised favored Belmont in the title game. With the graduation of Glenn Cosey, Walden should be EKU's go-to-guy this season.

Angelo Warner, Morehead State. Before Donnie Tyndall hit the big time at Tennessee, he made his name at Morehead State with a sharp eye for overlooked recruits. The 6-2 Warner, an Orlando, Fla., product, was Tyndall's last gift to his alma mater. A year ago, Warner led Coach Sean Woods' Eagles to 20 wins while averaging 17.5 points and 4.8 rebounds.

ACC-tion in The Ville

After spending last season in the purgatory that was the American Athletic Conference, Louisville is a full-fledged member of the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2014-15. That should mean boffo entertainment for hoops followers in the Derby City.

Circle these dates: Jan. 10, the Men of Pitino travel to Chapel Hill to face North Carolina; Jan. 17, Mike Krzyzewski brings Duke to the Yum Center for the first time; Jan. 31, Cryin' Roy Williams and UNC come to The Ville. Just in case any Louisville fans get a hankering for the old Big East, the Cardinals will travel to Syracuse on Feb. 18 to face their old/new conference rival in The Carrier Dome.

Kentucky's 'adopted' team

The out-of-state team that should be of most interest to hoops followers in the commonwealth this coming winter may surprise you: Say hello to Georgia State.

Coach Ron Hunter's backcourt should include former Kentucky point guard Ryan Harrow and ex-Louisville guard Kevin Ware.

Last year, Harrow averaged 17.7 points and 4.2 assists for the Panthers. This year, Ware will be trying to jump start a basketball career that was sidetracked by the horrific broken leg he suffered while playing for Louisville against Duke in the 2013 NCAA Tournament round of eight.

The Sun Belt Conference favorite Panthers also have a former Bluegrass State high school player playing a big role. Elizabethtown product Curtis Washington, a 6-10 center, averaged 7.5 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.4 blocked shots for Georgia State a season ago.

Girl power

These women's basketball games involving Kentucky teams are worth clearing your schedules for.

Baylor at Kentucky in Rupp Arena, Nov. 17. Will fans sell out Rupp for UK Hoops for a second straight year? Can UK and BU come remotely close to replicating the four-overtime classic they played in Arlington, Texas, last season?

Western Kentucky at Louisville, Nov. 25. With the return of star guard Alexis Govan from injury to rejoin standout forward Chastity Gooch, WKU should have its best team in eons. We'll get an early read on Coach Michelle Clark-Heard's squad against Sara Hammond, Bria Smith and U of L.

Kentucky at Louisville, Dec. 7. If you think the rivalry crackles between John Calipari and Rick Pitino, you should look in on Matthew Mitchell and Jeff Walz and their teams. UK Hoops has won three in a row and four of five against its archrival.

Louisville at Notre Dame, Feb. 23. In its new league, Louisville will find the road to the ACC title runs through a locale far from the Atlantic coast: South Bend, Ind.

South Carolina at Kentucky, March 1. Traditional SEC titan Tennessee will also visit Lexington (Jan. 29), but it is Coach Dawn Staley's Gamecocks who look to be the league's prime NCAA title contender.

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