College basketball always has been king in Kentucky and Indiana. Hundreds of fans in Lexington camped out a few weeks ago to secure tickets for the University of Kentucky’s first practice, better known as Big Blue Madness. More than 20,000 tickets were sold in 35 minutes.
North of the border in the Hoosier State, there are 15 high school basketball gyms ranging in capacity from 7,000 to 9,000 seats. Fifteen of the top 16 high school gymnasiums in the country can be found in Indiana.
But this year, more than any in recent memory, Kentuckiana — the basketball-crazed triangle containing Bloomington, Ind., Louisville, Ky., and Lexingon, Ky. — has every right to proclaim itself the epicenter of the sport.
Dick Vitale may as well just book a hotel room smack-dab in the middle of the craziness and stay there all season. The three campuses are within fairly short drives of each other. Louisville to Lexington is 77 miles and Louisville to Bloomington is two hours. The three hottest teams in the nation can be found in that corridor.
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Indiana is ranked No. 1 in almost every preseason poll, followed by No. 2 Louisville and No. 3 Kentucky. It is the first time that those three schools are together in the preseason top five, and the first time since 1979-80 that Indiana starts the season as the No. 1 team in the nation.
The Hoosiers, who return all five starters from a Sweet 16 team, received 43 first-place votes in The Associated Press media poll. They are led by 7-foot sophomore center Cody Zeller, who is the top candidate for National Player of the Year.
Louisville is coming off a Final Four season and got 20 first-place votes in the AP poll. The Cardinals return most of last season’s team, including big man Gorgui Dieng and point guard Peyton Siva. The addition of George Mason transfer Luke Hancock is a bonus.
Kentucky lost six of its top players to graduation and the NBA Draft. Four of those players left early and were taken in the first round of the draft, led by No. 1 pick Anthony Davis and No. 2 pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Despite the mass exodus, the Wildcats are picked No. 3 in most polls because the new crop of freshmen is that talented.
The rest of the best:
4. Ohio State: Jared Sullinger is gone, so the load falls on Shannon Scott, Aaron Craft and DeShawn Thomas.
5. Michigan: The Wolverines boast one of the best backcourt tandems in the nation with Trey Burke and Miami native Tim Hardaway Jr.
6. N.C. State: The Duke and North Carolina Atlantic Coast Conference duopoly is being threatened. The Blue Devils have won 19 ACC titles, the Tar Heels 29. The rest of the league has combined for 24. This could be a year the Wolfpack breaks the trend. N.C. State reached the Sweet 16 last spring.
7. Kansas: The Jayhawks were 32-7 last season and lost to Kentucky in the final. There’s no reason to believe they’ll fall from the top 10.
8. Duke: A 27-win season and second-place finish in the ACC would have felt better if the Blue Devils hadn’t lost to Lehigh in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
9. Syracuse: Jim Boeheim’s team went 34-3 last season, earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and reached the Elite Eight. Three players were lost to the NBA Draft, but Boeheim is still stacked.
10. Florida: Kenny Boynton (Plantation American Heritage) averaged 15.9 points per game last season, shot 270 three-pointers, and made 40.7 percent of them. Look for him to shine even more this season.
11. North Carolina: The Tar Heels won the ACC with 32 wins last season, but lost four NBA Draft first-rounders. It won’t be easy to replace Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller and Kendall Marshall.
12. Arizona: Being snubbed by the NCAA Tournament last season is motivation enough. Transfer Mark Lyons from Xavier will team with Solomon Hill for what should be a good season.
13. UCLA: Get a good look at freshman phenoms Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson, because they are likely gone after one season. The Bruins’ freshman class joins point guard Larry Drew II, the third player to transfer from North Carolina in two years. Travis and David Ware also are former Tar Heels.
14. Michigan State: Tom Izzo has most of his players back, and he always has a way of getting his teams ready for March.
15. Creighton: Forward Doug McDermott averaged 22.9 points per game (third in the nation) and 8.2 rebounds last season. There’s nothing mid-major about his game.
•Poised to make noise:
Memphis, Missouri, UNLV, Baylor, Gonzaga, Notre Dame, San Diego State, Cincinnati, Wisconsin, Murray State, Florida State, Virginia Commonwealth, Saint Louis.
•Should be dancin’ come March:
Stanford (reigning NIT champion), Minnesota (NIT runner-up), Texas, Pitt, Butler, University of Massachusetts, Miami, St. Joseph’s, Marquette, Kansas State, Tennessee.
Doug McDermott, F, Creighton; Isaiah Canaan, G, Murray St; Ray McCallum, Jr., G, Detroit; Zeller, C, Indiana; Phil Pressey, G, Missouri; Mike Moser, F, UNLV; Trey Burke, G, Michigan.
•Freshmen to watch:
Nerlens Noel, C, Kentucky; Muhammad, G, UCLA; Anderson, F, UCLA; Yogi Ferrell, G, Indiana; Isaiah Austin, C, Baylor; Marcus Smart, G, Oklahoma State; Marcus Paige, G, North Carolina; Steven Adams, C, Pitt.
•Chairmen of the boards:
O.D. Anosike (Siena), Andre Roberson (Colorado), Mike Moser (UNLV), Rich Howell (N.C. State), Jack Cooley (Notre Dame).
•All-name first team:
Indiana Faithfull (Wofford), Staats Battles (N.C. State), God’sgift Achiuwa (St. John’s), Drake U’u (Cal Poly), Blondi Baruti (Tulsa).
•All-name second team:
Deng Deng (Long Beach State), Bak Bak (Cal), Leek Leek (Campbell), Jordair Jett (St. Louis), Hooper Vint (UTEP).