Line up the bluebloods for their tales of woe, please. Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan State and North Carolina. Add the five together and you get 24 national champions and 78 Final Fours.
Add them together this season and they already have 17 conference defeats. Kansas was the only one of the five mentioned in last week’s Associated Press Top 25. Kentucky and North Carolina didn’t get a single vote, Duke got one more vote than Drake, Michigan State two fewer than Belmont.
There’s more. Kentucky started 1-6 for the first time since 1926. Kansas is 4-4 in league play for the first time in 33 years. Michigan State began 0-3 in the Big Ten for the first time in 19 seasons. Duke hasn’t been 5-5 since 1983. When North Carolina started 0-2 in the ACC, it meant the Tar Heels had lost 17 of their previous 23 games against league competition.
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And not even their legendary homes — in this pandemic season of empty arenas — could be relied upon. Kentucky lost by 20 to Alabama, its worst Rupp Arena defeat in 32 years. Texas gave Bill Self his ugliest Allen Fieldhouse beating ever, by 25 points. Michigan State was whipped by Wisconsin in East Lansing for the first time in 17 years. Duke’s 15-point loss to Illinois matched Mike Krzyzewski’s most lopsided Cameron Indoor Stadium defeat ever.
In other words, it’s been a difficult road for royalty, who have been trying to maintain the status quo with new faces. In this season of lost games, lost practices and lost time, it’s not easy being green. “It has been a really tough year for a whole bunch of reasons,” Mike Krzyzewski said. He was talking about Duke, but it could have been any of these five. To see if things are getting better, let’s spend the past week with the aristocracy.
MONDAY . . .
The latest poll is in. Duke is gone. The last time Duke, North Carolina and Kentucky were all out of the rankings was the early days of the Kennedy administration. It was 1961.
Another blow: Michigan State announces more positive virus tests, more postponements. The Spartans haven’t played since they blew a 17-point lead at home and lost to Purdue on Jan. 8. That was their fourth defeat in six games.
Later in the evening, Baylor welcomes in Kansas, closes the door, and immediately charges into a 16-point lead, winning 77-69 in the end. The Jayhawks trail for all but 13 seconds, and have no defensive answer for Jared Butler, who torches them for 30 points, hitting seven of his nine 3-point attempts.
Afterward, Self is asked for insight and seeks to make things simple: “Let’s not get this too twisted. Baylor’s better than us right now. Our margin for error isn’t what their margin for error is. They’ve got a really good basketball team, and we’ve got a nice basketball team, a pretty good team. There’s more things that have to go right for us to beat somebody like Baylor or Gonzaga than what has to go right for them to beat us. That’s not being negative, that’s just a fact.”
TUESDAY . . .
Krzyzewski has been searching for answers all season. You can tell by the fact 10 different Duke players have started a game. The Blue Devils get one boost in Pittsburgh, as freshman Jalen Johnson returns from injury and has a monster game — 24 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists and four blocks. Maybe he can be the bugle call. Still, Justin Champagnie’s 31 points lead to a 79-73 Pittsburgh victory, and Krzyzewski has to call a timeout after two minutes. “Not acceptable,” he says later. Duke is now 5-4.
“They’re 18, 19 and 20,” Krzyzewski says of his young team. “There should be no panic buttons on young people who have a chance to play at this level of college basketball. If there was a panic button, it would be for 73-year-old people who have coached for 46 years, and I don't have one. They’ve got to get tougher. This is such a young team and it’s as young of a team as we've had for a long time. We can't afford to be down, we have to respond.”
WEDNESDAY . . .
Kentucky is two seconds away from a victory, but suddenly Georgia’s P.J. Horne gets loose and scores on a layup and Wildcats are 63-62 losers, their third consecutive defeat. They've gone from a top-10 preseason team to 4-9. Georgia had lost 14 meetings in a row to Kentucky.
It’s a familiar Wildcat story: 17 turnovers, 1-for-13 shooting from the 3-point arc. Kentucky ends the evening 319th in the nation in 3-point percentage, 311th in assists. The new Wildcat wave has not yet found its footing on offense, and that’s wasted some good defense. John Calipari came into this season 202-19 in games where Kentucky held the opponent under 40 percent shooting, but the Georgia loss leaves the Wildcats 3-3 this season.
“I’m discouraged,” Calipari says to the media afterward. “What I keep saying is, these kids are respectful, they listen. They just don’t hear.
“You can tell my frustration right now, but I’m coach of the team, and I have a job to do and we have to figure out how we’re going to win games.”
Meanwhile, in Chapel Hill, they’re learning the value of meditation.
Freshman Caleb Love has had a hard-knock introduction to the ACC, missing 45 of his 60 shots in his first seven games. Fighting the wobbles in his confidence, he listens to his mother’s suggestion and meditates twice a day, to the Calm app. Then he goes out and puts 20 points on Wake Forest, hitting seven of 12 in an 80-73 Tar Heels victory.
“That just keeps me sane, keeps my head on straight,” he says. “I think it was more mental with me more than just ability. In my opinion, I know I can shoot, my teammates know I can shoot, my coaches know I can shoot.”
It suggests something about 9-5 North Carolina’s offensive struggles that it’s only the second time this season someone has broken 20 points.
SATURDAY . . .
Two offensive rebounds? That’s all for No. 9 Kansas, as the Jayhawks lose 75-68 at Oklahoma, one of six top-25 teams to lose to unranked opponents Saturday. Kansas hadn’t lost three Big 12 games in a row in eight years.
Guard Marcus Garrett has a big day with 21 points and 12 rebounds, but the Jayhawks still fall, and the 10-5 record is the worst after 15 games in 15 years. Self tries to find perspective.
“I don’t think it’s broken. I do think that it certainly needs some repairing. I think we need a new boost of energy, maybe shake things up a little bit lineup-wise. I told our guys the storybook season is done. As far as win all the games, be a 1 or 2 seed. That’s probably done. What we have to create is a storybook ending, and that’s still in play.
“We’re going through the same things that all other teams in America go through at some point in time . . .Our psyche’s probably a little fragile right night. Good gosh, doesn’t everybody’s psyche get fragile over the course of a marathon?”
Duke takes its third consecutive defeat, too, unable to produce enough late offense in a 70-65 loss at Louisville. In the final four minutes, the Blue Devils miss five of six shots and have three turnovers. Jalen Johnson, whose return was so electric in Pittsburgh, veers the other direction, as freshmen sometimes do. He scores only nine points and has six turnovers.
Then there’s the Duke free throw gap, which has grown as mysterious as the Bermuda Triangle. In the past four games, the Blue Devils’ opponents have had 101 attempts from the line. They’ve had 53. “It’s kind of crazy,” Krzyzewski says. “Are we using our hands too much? We have to evaluate that. Are we putting our opponents in a position where they can foul us? But that’s an extraordinary differential. I’ve never had that with our program.”
Been awhile since Duke was 5-5, too. Like, Krzyzewski’s third season. He once again mentions how a lot of the kinks with his young bunch would normally have been tended to in non-conference games and an arduous preseason. None of that happened this pandemic year. “We’re trying to get that done on January 23, right now.”
North Carolina’s newcomers seem to be progressing. The Tar Heels zip past North Carolina State 86-76 with four freshmen in double figures, something that hadn’t happened in Chapel Hill in 14 years. They also shoot over 50 percent for the first time this season. “I told them in timeout, we’ve had 60 — 60 — practices,” Roy Williams said. “We‘ve had 14 games. I think at that time, they should no longer be freshmen . . . But I love our freshmen. It’s as good a class as I’ve ever brought in in my life.”
That includes Love, who Williams said has a chance to be the best defensive point guard he’s ever recruited. “But he has to do it.”
Signs of life in Rupp Arena, too. Kentucky trails only 15 seconds and rolls past LSU 82-69. The Wildcats have but nine turnovers and show some steel on defense. They've now held four of their past five opponents under 40 percent shooting. The record is still only 5-9 but that feels a lot better than 4-10. Calipari sounds a lot happier than he did three days before.
“Defensively, there’s a lot of people that don’t want to see us get going because of how we defend and how long we are,” he says. “I’m trying to hold these guys accountable. You lose a game, it’s hard. My postgame talks to them on those games, I’m saying hurry up, get your stuff, let’s get on the bus. When they win, or when they’re playing better, now I can really make a point of things.”
The fewer turnovers? “Because everybody was playing for each other instead of themselves.”
The future? “Let’s keep taking pride in our defense, see where this goes.”
Count for our blueblood quintet for the week: A 3-5 record, Michigan State still on COVID hiatus.
SUNDAY . . .
The latest NCAA NET rankings are up. Kansas is 19, North Carolina 50, Kentucky 82, Michigan State 87 and Duke 89. All of them are behind Boise State and Colgate. Strange season. Which is why, with February nearing, so many renowned coaches at so many renowned places are looking at all the young faces around them, and wondering what comes next.