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Fun all the way to the Final Four

Central Kentucky basketball teams are serving up what fans have been waiting for

Mary Jo Perino is a sports anchor for WLEX-TV in Lexington. She can be reached at [email protected]

By Mary Jo Perino
For BG Magazine
A publication of The Lane Report

It’s THE time of year in the Bluegrass. Basketball season is here and in full swing. Expectations all around the commonwealth are high, and of course that starts with the University of Kentucky.

How do you follow up winning the national championship? You might think that took some pressure off John Calipari, but it’s just the opposite. The expectations will be to go to the Final Four every year. If he does it this season, it might be one of his best coaching jobs yet.

Calipari has the talent on his roster, there’s no doubt, including another heralded freshmen class that includes three projected future NBA lottery picks, Nerlens Noel, Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress. Throw in seven-footer Willie Cauley-Stein and transfers Ryan Harrow and Julius Mays, and you’ve got another team that appears to be loaded, and we didn’t even mention returning sharp-shooter Kyle Wiltjer. But this might be Cal’s youngest team ever.

Freshman Nerlens Noel scored four points in UK’s opening game against Maryland, which it won 72-69. Photo by Chet White | UK Athletics

There is no Patrick Patterson, no Darius Miller. These guys aren’t trying to defend their title, because almost none of them were here to win it. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have the chance to do it again.

Calipari’s team this year is the youngest he’s had at Kentucky, but the talent is still everywhere on the court. Alex Poythress has been described as a beast. Archie Goodwin can get up and down the floor as fast as anybody. Nerlens Noel may end up being another shot-blocking force. Julius Mays, a transfer from Wright State, brings an outside shooting threat to go along with Kyle Wiltjer.

Ryan Harrow will follow in the footsteps of Marquis Teague, Brandon Knight and John Wall, not an easy job, but he seems poised to do it.

It will take time for this team to actually learn how to play college basketball, play the way Coach Cal wants them to. But if this group can gel like last year’s, look out. The schedule won’t make it easy. Early on, UK beat Maryland, lost to Duke and Notre Dame, and broke Calipari’s home game winning streak when it lost to Baylor.

The SEC should be much improved as well this season. Florida is a Top 10 team, and newcomers Missouri and Texas A&M will provide tests for the Cats.

But as he always seems to do, Coach Cal is preparing his guys for a run in March. If fans can be patient while this team grows and learns, there could be another huge payoff in the spring.

Would you believe UK Women’s Coach Matthew Mitchell has more McDonald’s All-Americans this season than Coach Cal? It’s true. That’s why the UK women have set their sights on nothing short of a trip to the Final Four as well. After two trips to the Elite Eight in three years, it’s the logical next step.

Coach Mitchell has the deepest and most talented team he has had in his five seasons at Kentucky. It doesn’t hurt to have the reigning SEC player of the year in A’dia Mathies on your side either. Mathies leads a squad that can play 12-deep without missing a beat. That includes returning the SEC Freshman of the Year, Bria Goss. A sophomore now, Goss is poised to have a breakout season. The Cats were projected to repeat as SEC champions, and with the fast-paced, in-your-face type of basketball they play, that’s not hard to imagine.

There’s good basketball to see all over central Kentucky. The 2011-12 season was a magical one for the Transylvania men’s basketball team: a 10-game winning streak to open the season, a 23-5 overall mark, winning the Heartland Conference by four games, and making the school’s fourth appearance in the NCAA Division III Championships in head coach Brian Lane’s 11 years on the job.

The magic ran a little short in the postseason, but the return of Brandon Rash and three other starters should make this another banner season for the Pioneers, with their mind on repeating as conference champs and making a deeper run beyond that.

Transylvania University’s 2011-12 season will be difficult to top, but the Pioneers hope to match last year’s success.

Travel a few miles north on 1-75, and the Georgetown College Tigers are ready for another spectacular season, looking for their 22nd straight trip to Kansas City for the NAIA national tournament. The Tigers were the preseason No. 3 team in the league. They, too, have a packed schedule this season, mostly filled with opponents from the ever-expanding Mid-South Conference.

Head coach Chris Briggs has a group of talented starters returning as the Tigers have final four hopes of their own. Returning players this year are Garel Craig, Allan Thomas, Russ Middleton, Deondre McWhorter and Vic Moses, five key pieces the young coach will look to for help in finding chemistry with eight new players.

The Centre College men’s basketball team looks to return to the NCAA Tournament after an 18-9 season in 2011-12
that saw the Colonels finish one victory shy of a postseason berth. Centre lost its two leading scorers from last season, but what they lack in experience they should more than make up for in depth.

After serving one year as Kentucky State University’s interim head coach, Antwain Banks officially takes over as the head coach of the Thorobreds. Banks led KSU to a 12-15 overall record and a 12-12 conference record last season. Two years ago, Kentucky State had its first winning season since 1998-99, and are looking to turn the tide this year.

Yes, it’s basketball season in the Bluegrass. Whether you’re a fan of the Big Blue, or a smaller central Kentucky school, men or women’s basketball, you’re in luck. It looks like we’re going to be having fun all the way to the Final Four.

Mary Jo Perino is a sports anchor for WLEX-TV in Lexington and a correspondent for BG Magazine.