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 snared 22 first-place votes and 1,543 points.
Kentucky and Michigan State meet on Nov. 12 at the State Farm Champions Classic in Chicago.
Michigan State was a unanimous pick to win the Big Ten conference, and guard Gary Harris was selected Preseason Player of the Year, making it a Spartans sweep in a vote by conference media.
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 10.
Connecticut checked in at No. 18.