Originally Published: February 3, 2013

Will Kentucky and UNC dance in March?

Robbi Pickeral

North Carolina coach Roy Williams says he doesn't start thinking about the NCAA tournament mix until after the regular season.

Kentucky coach John Calipari, too, prefers to focus on the here and now.

It's another thing the veterans have in common this season (whether or not they really are paying attention), as their blue-blooded teams find themselves inexplicably sliding all over the postseason bubble.

[+] Enlarge
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesKentucky is loaded with young talents like Nerlens Noel, but with that comes growing pains.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, you'd have to go back to 1974 to find the last NCAA tournament that didn't feature either Kentucky or UNC. Yet despite their recent victories -- each team has won five of their past six -- the programs find themselves in precarious positions: No. 10 seeds in Joe Lunardi's Bracketology, prior to their overtime victories on Saturday.

The reasons? Youth. Inconsistency. Defense.

UK (15-6, 6-2 SEC), the defending national champion, lost six players to the NBA draft after beating Kansas last April. Since then, Kentucky brought in ESPN.com's second-ranked recruiting class, began the season ranked No. 3 in The Associated Press poll -- and then slid all the way out of the ratings after falling to Duke early, then losing consecutive games to Notre Dame and Baylor in late November/early December.

UNC (15-6, 5-3 ACC), which arguably might have made it to the Final Four and perhaps played UK in the championship game last season if point guard Kendall Marshall had not fractured his wrist, lost four-fifths of its starting lineup to the draft's first round. With an eighth-ranked recruiting class and the return of would-have-been lottery pick James Michael McAdoo, it started the season at No. 11, rose to as high as ninth, and then fell out of the Top 25 mix before Christmas after an 18-point walloping at Texas.

Many other teams (and fan bases) might have expected rebuilding seasons, giving their programs a one-year pass.

But not the Wildcats, who after all won last year's title with a rookie-laden team; why couldn't they do it again?

And not the Tar Heels, who showed after winning the 2005 title that they were still capable of returning to the NCAA tournament despite losing six of their top seven scorers. Why couldn't they do it again?

"I think it is just the reality of it; the expectations are never going to be realistic," Williams said last week. "But sometimes, like last year, we were picked first, and what did I tell you? It didn't bother me, because I knew that was pretty close. This year, we were picked 11th, and I'm thinking, 'Wow, that's not the guys that I see.' But we've got a chance -- sort of like that [movie] 'Dumb and Dumber.' We've got a chance.

"I think it is part of the reality of it, that people aren't going to be realistic, which is OK. I'd much rather have unrealistic expectations than no interest."

Oh, there is interest for both teams.

Amid it all, the biggest frustration for Calipari: This year's team has been slower to buy into roles. The 2011-12 squad was special not just because of its uber-talent, but because that talent bought into the idea of "team" rather than personal accolades.

Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, for example, who went on to become the top two picks in the NBA draft, took the fourth- and fifth-most shots on the roster. And it helped that UK boasted a couple of more experienced anchors in sophomore starters Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones.

But UK, at least early on, has been missing that lightning-in-a-bottle mix. Instead of pressing the pedal in blowout after blowout, the Wildcats have experienced letdown after letdown.

There was that first game against Texas A&M on Jan. 12, when the Aggies reeled off a 16-1 run with less than six minutes left to beat UK 83-71, marking Calipari's second loss ever at Rupp as UK's head coach. There was the matchup three days later with Tennessee, which Kentucky eventually won by double figures but frustrated Calipari because his team allowed the Volunteers to shoot their way back into it in the second half.

Then, after a maybe-they're-finally-getting-it-together win at Auburn, there was the letdown at Alabama, when the Tide opened the second half with a game-turning 11-1 run and held the Wildcats to 22 second-half points.

That's why, after Kentucky's could-be-groundbreaking win at Old Miss on Tuesday night, Calipari -- whose team needed overtime to win at Texas A&M in a Saturday rematch -- was still tempering expectations and preaching the need for improvement.

"It's good," he said after the victory over the Rebels. "But look, our thing is way out in front of us still. We came from Auburn and did what we did. And then what did we do the next game? … Two guys didn't show up for the game [at Alabama]; they might as [well] not have gotten on the bus. So we have a long ways to go."

The same thing could be said in Chapel Hill, where the Tar Heels are still trying to fit together pieces that seem to come from a few different puzzles.

[+] Enlarge
Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon SMIMarcus Paige was handed the keys to UNC's offense the moment he stepped on campus.

Marcus Paige, a freshman starting at point guard who scored a career-high 19 points during Saturday's overtime win over Virginia Tech, has shown both promise and regression and really could have used a year behind Marshall.

None of the Tar Heels' young centers have stepped forward to help take the pressure off sophomore McAdoo, and that hurts an offense that runs best when going through the post.

Points have sometimes been at a premium. Defense has been sporadic for too many spurts.

And there's a lack of cohesion and toughness that especially showed itself in losses to Butler (against whom UNC trailed by as many as 29 points), at Indiana (a 32-point deficit), at Texas (19), and most recently at rival NC State (28). Williams insists his team can still be "pretty good," but it's also pretty clear that his patience is wearing thin.

Instead of more "learning experiences," he said recently, he's ready for his squad to start playing to its potential.

"I get tired of that," he said. "The game's basketball, they have a damn scoreboard, that's what you've got to learn by.

"Early in the season, I can understand that; early in the season, you learn. But we've played 19 or 20 games, and I'm tired of learning. I want some results."

In 2010, Williams' Tar Heels became only the fourth defending NCAA champion to miss the tournament since the field expanded in 1985 (joining Florida in 2008; Kansas in 1989 because the Jayhawks were ineligible; and Louisville in 1986). That season -- in which the Tar Heels had to settle for the postseason NIT title game -- was the most frustrating of his career, Williams has often said.

Can this season's versions of the Tar Heels and Wildcats avoid similar fates? There is time.

UNC still has two games against No. 5 Duke, as well as rematches with ranked Miami and NC State; those could be RPI boosters if they can muster some upset cohesion while avoiding letdowns against the likes of Virginia (whom the Tar Heels have already lost to once), Maryland and Florida State. McAdoo has been more aggressive lately, and junior Reggie Bullock can score in bunches, but it's a tough schedule.

Kentucky, meanwhile, still faces No. 4 Florida twice and 17th-ranked Missouri once, but also must shackle any more letdowns against the rest of its league. Rookie forward Nerlens Noel is coming on strong, following a career-high 12-block performance against Ole Miss with a career-high 19 points at A&M, but his teammates must also continue buying into their roles, and each other.

"Now if there is a change," Calipari said in mid-January, "my vision is there's no one late in this season that's going to want to play this team. If we get it right."

If not -- and whether Calipari and Williams are paying attention right now -- the NCAA bubble could grow a whole lot more slippery. And a whole lot more blueblooded than March has seen in decades.

Observations from Saturday's games

By Eamonn Brennan

Indiana and Michigan just played the best game of the year.

No, it didn't end with a buzzer-beater finish. But that was the only thing it lacked. In every other possible way, this game was big-time college hoops at its finest, two top-five teams with a handful of pros between them duking it out in front of a completely insane crowd, countering excellent defense with even better offense, fighting for every possession, dunking the ball in high-style frequently, with not only an eventual Big Ten title but crucial NCAA tournament positioning on the line.

It was, to sum it as succinctly as possible, awesome. It was college basketball at its best.

[+] Enlarge
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesCody Zeller was a big part of the season's best game (so far).

The Hoosiers won, as they have so often since their resurrection last season under coach Tom Crean, with superbly efficient offense. IU finished with 81 points on 50 shots; it shot 52 percent from the field, 38.9 percent from 3 and -- perhaps most impressively -- 22 of 25 from the free throw line.

Those free throws were especially handy as IU closed out the game late, because Michigan never went away. Indiana started out as hot as possible in the first half, but Trey Burke kept the Wolverines in the game, and his 25-foot-plus first-half buzzer-beating 3 closed what had been a 15-point lead to just 36-32 at the half.

The Wolverines got more balanced scoring from Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nik Stauskas in the second half, and they hung tough throughout, but the relentless onslaught of the Hoosiers -- particularly Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller (who finished with 19 points and nine rebounds on 8-for-10 from the field), who crashed the glass for a seemingly endless barrage of tip dunks and putbacks -- paired with the reliable free throw shooting to hold on to the lead and the 81-73 victory down the stretch.

The loss may be considered something of a blown opportunity for Michigan -- Hardaway and Stauskas shot the ball poorly, and for everything good Burke did, he still finished nine of 24 and four of 12 from 3. Michigan entered Saturday with the most efficient offense in the country, but at Assembly Hall it took 70 shots to score 73 points, including an uncharacteristic seven of 23 from long range. The Wolverines also committed an unusual number of fouls, which allowed all those IU free throws.

Michigan averages just 11 fouls per game, and its opponents typically shoot the lowest ratio of free throws to field goals in the country (20.1 percent). The Hoosiers' mark was more than 45 percent Saturday night, and it is hard to beat IU when it goes to the line that often.

Despite all that, and despite the Hoosiers' impressive interior work, UM was still very much in the game down the stretch. If you're John Beilein, you don't go away from that rowdy Assembly Hall environment feeling bad about your team's effort, or even its performance. You make a few more shots -- including open looks throughout the first half -- and you might just walk away with a win.

Whatever the result ended up being, this was an incredible game.

It was one great play after another. It was a freaky crowd jacked on adrenaline and who knows what else. It was Oladipo flying down the lane; it was Zeller crashing the glass. It was Burke finding answers where none seemed to exist; it was Michigan scrapping for every bucket in the second half. The Wolverines tied it at 40 at the 17:32 mark in the second half. At that point, anything could have happened. All I knew was that it was going to be great.

It didn't disappoint. Not one bit.

You want to know the best part? These two teams run it back in Ann Arbor on March 10 -- in the final Big Ten game of the season. The only downside is that March 10 isn't tomorrow.

To read Eamonn's full post, click here.


You must be signed in to post a comment

Already have an account?