By JEFF MEZYDLO
A starting lineup filled with underclassmen has not prevented Kentucky from reaching the top of the AP poll.
Playing with the No. 1 ranking for the first time since the 2009-10 season, the Wildcats face St. John's as part of the Big EastSEC Challenge at Rupp Arena on Thursday night.
Paced by a starting five made up of three freshmen and two sophomores, Kentucky (6-0) has scored 84.4 points a contest and won its games by an average of 30.0. The Wildcats moved up one spot to the top ranking after blowing out Radford and Portland last week, jumping past previous No. 1 North Carolina thanks to the Tar Heels' loss to UNLV.
The Wildcats, who face fifth-ranked North Carolina on Saturday at Rupp Arena, are in their 90th week at No. 1 - fourth all-time behind UCLA (134), Duke (122) and North Carolina (108).
Kentucky hadn't been atop the poll since the week of Jan. 25, 2010, and the Wildcats surrendered the spot by the following week.
"This early in the season it's nice, but (a No. 1 ranking is) not that significant," coach John Calipari told Kentucky's official website. "It just puts a bigger target on us. I'll be anxious to see how the team accepts the challenge this week."
With all of their starters averaging double figures in points and senior Darius Miller (8.5 ppg) coming off the bench, the Wildcats have met every challenge rather easily. Miller and sophomore forward Terrence Jones each scored 19 in an 87-63 win over Portland on Saturday.
A starter on last season's team that reached the national semifinals, Miller could make his first start since the opener in either game this week.
"I'm not really worried about coming off the bench or starting or whatever," Miller said. "We've got a lot of things we need to correct before we try to make a run at a national championship."
Guard Marquis Teague added 14 points, eight assists and four steals while fellow freshman Anthony Davis had 13 points with 12 boards.
Though the Wildcats had little trouble putting Portland away, the Pilots went 11 of 23 from 3-point range and outrebounded Kentucky 39-38. Those appear to be two areas where Kentucky needs to improve with a couple of bigger challenges on tap this week.
"We know (they are) going to be two really tough games," Miller said. "St. John's, North Carolina, they're two of the elite teams in the nation."
While Miller might see St. John's (4-3) as a worthy opponent, the Red Storm will need to be at their very best in order to pull off the upset. This is the first meeting between the schools since St. John's 62-61 victory at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 9, 2000.
Making its first visit to Rupp Arena since the 1985 Final Four, St. John's will be without coach Steve Lavin for a third straight game as he takes more time to recover from prostate cancer surgery.
"It's not fair to the team if I coach in games when not yet having the necessary strength for competing at the highest level of college basketball," Lavin told St. John's official website.
Without Lavin, the Red Storm will look to bounce back from a 78-64 home loss to Northeastern on Saturday. Junior God'sgift Achiuwa scored 17 points and sophomore Nurideen Lindsey added 16, but the Red Storm shot 41.4 percent for the game and were outscored 45-33 in the second half.
Lindsey is averaging a team-leading 14.4 points.
St. John's is facing its third Top 25 opponent after falling 81-72 to then-No. 15 Arizona and 58-57 to then-No. 19 Texas A&M at the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at MSG two weeks ago.