Last summer, you could buy a royal blue-and-white t-shirt reading "40-0" before half of Kentucky's fabled 2013 recruiting class arrived on campus. This was at the height of the preseason hype for the debut of what some were calling the greatest freshman class of all-time, one that included a record six McDonald's All-Americans. It was nothing coach John Calipari or his band of highly-touted 18-year-olds asked for, but it was unavoidable following a disappointing 2012 season that saw Kentucky lose in the first round of the NIT.
By now, you know how the story played out. Kentucky was good, but they weren't that good until an unlikely run to the championship game of the NCAA Tournament saved their season. In time, it will be easy to forget the team with Julius Randle, James Young and the first season of the Harrison twins only entered the tournament as a No. 8 seed. The campaign would have been considered a major disappointment if the Wildcats didn't get hot at the right time in March.
This year's version of the Wildcats will share a similar talent level and many of the same players as its predecessor, but the context will be completely different. No one is foolishly expecting a 40-0 season. There's reason to believe Kentucky could be even better than last year, though, at least at the start of the season, for two main reasons:
1) Kentucky's freshman class, one that includes four McDonald's All-Americans, is already on campus
2) The Wildcats are taking a four-game August tour of the Bahamas to help tune up for the season
Center Karl Towns, power forward Trey Lyles and guards Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker are already in Lexington getting accustomed to life on campus and what it's like to be a big-time basketball player at Kentucky. That's a change from a year ago, when Young and the Harrisons didn't arrive in Lexington until late August.
The trip to the Bahamas will be far more than a vacation, too. The Wildcats will play two games against the Puerto Rico National Team reserves and two games against French club Champagne Chalons-Reims Basket on the trip from Aug. 10-17.
It's not insignificant. Kentucky will have multiple practices and four competitive games under their belt before anyone else in the country. It's all because of an NCAA rule that grants a summer international trip once every four years.
It's not like Kentucky really got off to a slow start last year, but it was disappointing given the expectations. The Wildcats lost their third game of the season to No. 2 Michigan State and went 10-3 in the opening nonconference slate before ending SEC play at 12-6. That would have been pretty good if all those 40-0 t-shirts didn't exist.
Randle and Young are gone, but most of the primary principles from last year's team return. The front court is loaded with returning players Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee joining Towns and Lyles. The backcourt has the Harrison twins back as sophomores, and should get a boost from the 5-foot-9 Ulis.
Kentucky proved in the tournament a year ago that there's no match for waves of athletic big men, and they'll be even more stacked in that department this upcoming season than they were a year ago. Toss in some extra time on campus for the freshman and the bonding experience and extra practices that come with the Bahamas trip, and it's easy to see why UK should again be one of the best teams in the country.
The hype won't be the same for the Wildcats, but the end result has a chance to be. Kentucky will be very good once again, only this time they might not have to wait until March to prove it.