LEXINGTON, Ky. — Every time Kentucky coach John Calipari starts to praise his latest crop of talented freshmen, he’s just as quick to point out that it is a work in progress.
As the Wildcats take the first step toward coming together, Calipari will also have to remind his players to get through those growing pains quickly, because they are now the team to beat in college basketball.
Kentucky — with a collection of high school All-Americans — is ranked No. 1 in The Associated Press’ preseason Top 25, a significant step considering the Wildcats finished 21-12 last season and were upset by Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT.
It’s Kentucky’s third preseason No. 1 and first since 1995-96 when the Wildcats won the national championship. The other preseason No. 1 was in 1980-81.
Kentucky was ranked for just one week in the final 16 polls of last season but Calipari enters this season with a roster featuring two returnees — Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein — and six freshmen who were selected McDonalds All-Americans last season.
To say that a ninth national championship is this year’s goal is an understatement considering Kentucky has social media and blogs suggesting an unbeaten season is possible.
Calipari would just like to get to the Nov. 8 opener against North Carolina-Asheville first. The Wildcats begin the exhibition season Friday.
“It’s a nice honor, but it’s way too early to figure out who’s the best team in the country,” Calipari said. “We may be very talented, but I can’t imagine us being the best team in the country at this point.”
Kentucky beat out Michigan State in a close vote from the 65-member panel.
The Wildcats received 27 first-place votes and 1,546 points in the poll released Thursday. The Spartans, who return four starters from the team that lost to Duke in the NCAA tournament’s round of 16, snared 22 first-place votes and 1,543 points.
It won’t take long for the schools to settle the issue. Kentucky and Michigan State meet on Nov. 12 at the State Farm Champions Classic in Chicago.
If their rankings hold, it’ll set up the earliest meeting between the top two teams. No. 1 Indiana beat No. 2 UCLA 84-64 on Nov. 29, 1975 in St. Louis, Mo.
The polling also enhances what already figured to be a strong showdown between two heavyweights.
“A 1-2 matchup is a win-win deal,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo told the AP. “If you win, you understand where you are and what you have as a team. If you lose, you’ve got time to figure out what you need to do to get better. I’m not sure, though, how kids and fans will react to winning or losing that game.”
Of his team’s ranking, Izzo added, “it’s exciting because it means a group of people think we’re good, and we’ve got a chance to be great.”
Defending national champion Louisville received 14 first-place votes and was third while Duke, which received the other two No. 1 votes, was fourth.
Kansas was fifth, followed by Arizona and Michigan. Oklahoma State and Syracuse tied for eighth and Florida rounded out the Top Ten.
Ohio State was 11th and was followed by North Carolina, Memphis, VCU, Gonzaga, Wichita State, Marquette, Connecticut, Oregon and Wisconsin.
The last five ranked teams were Notre Dame, UCLA, New Mexico, Virginia and Baylor.
The last preseason No. 1 not to be ranked in the final poll of the previous season was Indiana in 1979-80.
Indiana was the preseason No. 1 last season and the Hoosiers were fourth in the final poll.
Gonzaga was No. 1 in the final poll last season and 18 teams in that final poll were in the preseason Top 25.
The Atlantic Coast Conference had the most teams in the preseason Top 25 with five and the Big Ten had four. The new American Athletic Conference, the Big 12 and Pac 12 all had three ranked teams.
Though Kentucky’s objective is winning its second NCAA title in three seasons, playing like it’s the nation’s best is also a priority for the Wildcats a year after falling from the poll weeks after starting No. 3.
“It’s a blessing to be No. 1, but it means we have a (target) on our backs now and we really have to stay focused,” Kentucky 7-footer Dakari Johnson said Thursday. “That’s not the main thing we’re focused on. We’re just trying to be the best team that we can be.”
Michigan State senior guard Keith Appling echoed that sentiment, especially since the Spartans came within three votes of being top-ranked.
“That has to be one of the things to drive us to work harder,” he said.
The consensus is that Calipari landed his best in a series of No. 1 recruiting classes. The group features Julius Randle, James Young, Johnson, Marcus Lee and identical twin guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison, along with in-state standouts Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis.
Along with Cauley-Stein, Poythress and senior reserves Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood, Kentucky has a mix of experience somewhat similar to the 2011-12 title team led by Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
The season will determine whether Kentucky is able to deliver, and Willis said the Wildcats are just focused on being on top at the end.
“There’s a lot of talk about 40-0 and all that stuff,” Willis said, “but we’re just working on ourselves and not worrying about what the media is saying right now.”
AP Basketball Writer Jim O’Connell In New York, and AP Sports Writer Larry Lage in East Lansing, Mich., contributed to this report.