The tradition-rich programs with 24 NCAA championships between them are still seeking an identity after falling from the Top 25 due to inconsistent nonconference play fueled by inexperience, players in new roles and injuries.
The Wildcats and Bruins have shown signs of figuring things out now that league play has begun, but the Tar Heels’ struggles have worsened.
UCLA started the year with eligibility concerns over star freshman Shabazz Muhammad and a home loss to Cal Poly, though it has won eight straight. Kentucky lost three times in the first month and its latest freshman haul is still adjusting to college. UNC has started 0-2 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Before this season, the last time that Kentucky, North Carolina and UCLA were all out of The Associated Press Top 25 in the same week was March 12, 1990, according to STATS LLC. But Kentucky and UCLA – both counting on touted freshmen like Muhammad and Nerlens Noel – were out of the poll by the start of December; North Carolina dropped out the day before Christmas.
Of the trio, the Tar Heels (10-5) are on the shakiest ground.
North Carolina started at No. 11 and reached ninth in Top 25, but they lost at Virginia over the weekend then at home to Miami on Thursday night. And while the last North Carolina team to start 0-2 in the ACC won the NCAA championship in 2009, this year’s group hasn’t shown similar promise.
“Our kids have been doing some really nice things in practice, we just haven’t taken it from the practice court to the game court,” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said Thursday night. “When you play basketball at North Carolina, people expect a lot from you. I’ve got some really good kids that are hurting right now and they are also feeling a little stressed. There’s no question about that.”
The Tar Heels are replacing four NBA first-round draft picks from last year’s team, which has put a bigger burden on 6-foot-9 sophomore James Michael McAdoo. But he’s struggling with the transition to a leading role after returning to school instead of entering the NBA Draft.
In addition, the Tar Heels’ four freshmen aren’t making big contributions and two veterans – Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald – are returning from knee injuries that cost them some or all of last year.
In the Bluegrass State, the Wildcats (10-4) started at No. 3 despite losing six players to the NBA Draft from last year’s national championship team, including No. 1 pick Anthony Davis and No. 2 pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. But the Wildcats fell to No. 8 after an early loss to Duke then slid out of the rankings after consecutive losses to Notre Dame and Baylor in which they failed to score 60 points.
Coach John Calipari had warned that this year’s group would need time. They needed stronger play at point guard and lacked leadership from experienced upperclassmen. At one point, he even began “Camp Cal,” a three-week program with morning workouts and afternoon practice to improve his players’ fitness and commitment.
“I’m coaching different than I did a year ago,” Calipari said. “That team didn’t need the things that this team needs and this team there are things that, that team needed that this team doesn’t need. So every year I coach, I have a different job.”
Kentucky has only lost once in the past seven games, and that 80-77 at then-No. 4 Louisville. The Wildcats won their Southeastern Conference opener Thursday night at Vanderbilt, though they blew a 16-point second-half lead before winning 60-58.
“We’re real young, but guys have matured a lot,” senior guard Julius Mays said. “It’s more a focus on the team instead of focusing on themselves. Everybody wants to see the team do well and we’ve put in a lot of work and a lot of time in and guys have been getting better individually.”
Things are also starting to turn around in Westwood.
The Bruins, who started the year at No. 13, got behind when Muhammad missed two weeks of preseason practice with a shoulder injury then missed the first three games due to improper benefits before the NCAA cleared him to play.
But UCLA (13-3, 3-0 Pac-12) hasn’t lost since falling to San Diego State on Dec. 1, including Thursday night’s 57-53 win at Utah in its first road game this year.
“I love those expectations,” Bruins coach Ben Howland said. “I think it drives your players to be the best they can be, to always have expectations that you’re supposed to win every time you play. I think our kids have really improved a lot over the course of the season. We still have a long way to go. I really feel good and confident about our team.”
As of now, though, all three of the marquee programs are little more than works in progress.
“That’s true of a lot of teams,” Bilas quipped, “but those programs and those names aren’t allowed that.”