Last Year: Kentucky was one of the breakout teams of the 2012 season. A lot of people saw the potential for Kentucky to go on a run, but some of us felt the need to put caveat upon caveat on the talk of Kentucky as an SEC East contender. Then, the Wildcats started out on a 22-game win streak, and it looked like UK might just get to its first College World Series. They went 23-18 the rest of the way, losing series at Vanderbilt and against Florida before getting swept by Mississippi State on the last weekend to hand the division title to South Carolina. The NCAA run ended with bookend losses to Kent State in the Gary, Indiana Regional -- which Kentucky started by losing to the Golden Flashes in 21 innings.
What's Changed: Every other position player. Literally. If you take the starting position players and line them up by batting average, as most media guides do, then the second-, fourth-, sixth- and eighth-best hitters left Kentucky in the offseason. That includes home-run leader Luke Maile, who batted .319/.426/.533 and hit 12 homers, and Thomas McCarthy, who hit .310/.396/.455. The only pitcher who started more than nine games to leave is Taylor Rogers, who was 6-4 with a 4.53 ERA and allowed a .303 batting average in his 89.1 innings of work.
What's the Same: The two biggest names on this team are Anthony Cousino, who hit .319/.408/.515 with nine home runs, and Corey Littrell, who was 9-2 with a 2.74 ERA and 87 strikeouts in 2012. They form the backbone of a team that returns a good number of its key pieces -- including, of course, the third-, fifth-, seventh- and ninth-best starting batters -- and a lot of the bit players who make any baseball team gel and win if it does. And Gary Henderson is back after steering the Wildcats to the tournament last year.
The Schedule: The non-conference schedule is pretty easy, though the two games against No. 4 Louisville (Baseball America) could end up being some of the most anticipated college baseball games in the history of the state. There's also a game in Myrtle Beach against the generally solid Coastal Carolina program. The conference is a bit more of a slog. The Wildcats draw Arkansas, LSU and both Mississippi teams out of the SEC West -- in case you haven't noticed, that would be the top four teams in the division as voted on by the coaches. The series against Florida and South Carolina are both road sets. One particularly brutal stretch includes a series at Ole Miss and then a home stand that features the Arkansas series, a game against Wright State and then the Vanderbilt series. Kentucky's chances at winning the division could be decided in that 10-game stretch.
Prognosis: Kentucky won't be a surprise team this year. Last year was no fluke, and with a lot of the same players back, it's not going to shock anyone too much if the Wildcats start off hot again. But there's no margin for error this year. The Wildcats should make the NCAA tournament, but it's not clear that they can get the No. 1 seed that eluded them last year, and it's not clear that they would have as good a chance to get to Omaha if they make the field. Then again, there were a lot of caveats placed on the boldest of predictions about Kentucky in 2012 -- and we see where that landed them.