The 13-team Southeastern Conference becomes the last of the power leagues to open conference play in men’s basketball.
You thought there were 14 SEC teams?
“Kentucky has kind of separated themselves in nonconference from the rest of the world, not only our league,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said.
While the rest of college basketball preps for its conference schedule, the Wildcats figure to rise above it as they did in 13 nonleague contests.
The schedule included four teams ranked at the time of tipoff — Kansas, Texas, North Carolina and Louisville.
Only the 58-50 triumph at Louisville, the team’s most recent game on Dec. 27, wasn’t settled by double-digits.
And although the list of conquests includes a 32-point triumph over the Jayhawks, it doesn’t factor in the 39-point victory over unranked UCLA.
Most frightening to the rest of college basketball, this is happening without a single force. Kentucky has many capable of dominating, but no player averages more than Willie Cauley-Stein’s 24 minutes.
“They’re selfless, and that’s why you see what you’re seeing,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Everybody (asks), ‘How do you get them to play together?’ Well, they’ve got to accept. They’ve got to allow us to do things we’re doing, the platooning and the other things. And they are.”
Kentucky’s season is what can happen when several members of one top-ranked recruiting class return for a sophomore season and join another monster class.
Twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee joined the 2014 class of Karl-Anthony Towns, Trey Lyles, Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker.
For good measure, big men Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress have remained from the 2012 recruiting class.
Of that core, Cauley-Stein, who spent his last two high school years at Olathe Northwest, wasn’t ranked as a Rival.com top 21 recruit. He was No. 40, and wouldn’t you know, in the program that leads college basketball in one-and-dones —Kentucky is the only program with at least one freshmen headed to the NBA in each of the last five seasons — Cauley-Stein has become a statement for improvement over a college career.
“His growth from last year to this year is amazing,” Calipari said.
As for cracks in the armor, the Wildcats aren’t a great shooting team from the line (66.2 percent) and three-point arc (32.1 percent). But they’re winning games by an average of 27.5 points, and their shot-blocking ability is beyond anything that exists in the game.
The Wildcats, who played one of the nation’s toughest nonconference slates, open SEC play on Tuesday against Mississippi. Kentucky will be favored in all 18 games and will bid to become the second straight team to sweep the league slate. Florida did it last year.
If that happens, and the Wildcats win the SEC Tournament, they’ll be 34-0 headed into the NCAA Tournament and look to become the most perfect team in college basketball history. That mark belongs to the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers, who went 32-0.
Wichita State won its first 35 last year before falling to Kentucky in its second NCAA game.
Duke and Virginia join the Wildcats as unbeaten, and the ACC schools meet on Jan. 31. They’re No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament if the season ended today, along with Wisconsin. But as far as chasing perfection, there’s a clear leader.
“I suppose if anybody could do it,” Stallings said, “they could.”