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Kentucky, Duke, Kansas and North Carolina Struggling This Season

There’s the Top 25, but where are Kentucky, Duke, Kansas and North Carolina?

If you are just now turning your attention to college basketball in the aftermath of the Super Bowl and the college football season, you may be shocked at what you find.

The traditional blue bloods Kentucky, Duke, Kansas and North Carolina are struggling, and Monday was the first time in 60 years that none of those men’s basketball teams were ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll. The last poll that didn’t include any of them came out the week of Dec. 18, 1961, when “To Kill a Mockingbird” was one of the best-selling books and “The Dick Van Dyke Show” was the hottest show on TV.

In fact, none of the 13 programs with the most wins in Division I history are currently ranked, a group that also includes Syracuse, U.C.L.A., Notre Dame, Indiana and Arizona.

The poor performances of Kentucky and Duke, which have combined to win 13 N.C.A.A. tournament titles and now rely heavily on one-and-done talent, have garnered most of the headlines. The Wildcats were a ghastly 5-12 after losing to Tennessee on Saturday, while the Blue Devils dropped to 7-7 after falling to their archrival North Carolina on Saturday evening. Kentucky will almost certainly have to win the SEC tournament next month to avoid missing the N.C.A.A. tournament for the first time since 2013, while Duke is on the bubble.

The combination of the big teams’ relative youth and the impact of the pandemic on preparation for the season has led to mounting losses and frustration for coaches, players and fan bases.

Kansas ranks 265th, North Carolina 323rd, Kentucky 341st and Duke 343rd in Division I in experience this season, according to Kenpom.com.

“I’m trying to stay positive,” Kentucky Coach John Calipari said after the Tennessee loss. “I’m trying to hold them accountable. I’m trying to continue to teach. I’m never going to stop, quit on this team. I’ll give them everything I have. But at the end of the day, they have to get on the court and perform.”

Because of the pandemic, the college season was pushed back two weeks, with practices not beginning until Oct. 14 and the season opening on Nov. 25. There were no overseas trips to build team bonding and no preseason games to help determine rotations.

Kentucky may have added the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation and a top transfer, center Olivier Sarr, but even top players need time to learn new teammates and a new system. For a team like Kentucky, which has virtually an entire roster of freshmen and transfers, the pandemic — combined with all the losing — has had a devastating effect.

On Dec. 22, at the end of a loss to North Carolina, the freshman Cam’Ron Fletcher was seen crying on the Kentucky bench. Calipari ultimately asked him to “step away” from the team for a few days.

“You’ve got to accept your position on this team, whatever minutes you get,” Calipari said after the loss to the Tar Heels. “Cam was mad he didn’t play more. And I’m like, ‘The guys in front of you are playing.’

“Cam came in and apologized after, but they don’t understand that with four minutes to go, we have a chance to win the game and you cop an attitude, it’s the immaturity of that.”

Kentucky’s failures have had an impact on the N.B.A. draft stock of some players. The freshmen B.J. Boston and Terrence Clarke entered the season as projected lottery picks, but Boston is now considered a late-first-round pick, while Clarke, who has been injured since late December, has fallen to the second round in some mock drafts.

“The level of frustration among the fan base is the highest it’s been since Calipari has been here,” Matt Jones, a longtime Kentucky radio personality, said.

Jalen Johnson is part of a Duke team this season that has not matched its usual excellence.
Charles Leclaire/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Duke also brought in six freshmen in the nation’s No. 3 recruiting class plus one graduate transfer, and they, too, have struggled.

“I think there’s no question that for those two schools, they have so many first-year players that it’s definitely a factor,” Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim said Monday on a conference call, referring to the impact of the pandemic. “The summer is important for those programs.”

Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski has been so frustrated with his team’s results, it has boiled over at times. On Dec. 8, after a 15-point home loss to Illinois, he said that college basketball should “reassess” playing during the pandemic while thousands of Americans were dying each day.

The loss came a week after another home loss to Michigan State. “Let me ask you a question,” Alabama Coach Nate Oats asked a reporter that week. “Do you think Coach K would be saying that if he hadn’t lost those two nonconference games at home?

“No, we should be playing, in my opinion,” Oats added. “We 100 percent should be playing basketball.”

Two months later, Krzyzewski seems to have accepted that his young team is going to take its licks. And he said on Monday that he was definitely in favor of playing conference tournaments even as some have suggested the top teams forgo them in favor of staying safe for the N.C.A.A. tournament.

“This year, these kids have been in a strange environment and you have to be careful,” he said. “I worry about their mental health along with the physical health and the development.”

North Carolina is in a similar situation, having brought in six freshmen in the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class. But at 12-6, the Tar Heels are doing much better than last year, when Roy Williams had the first losing season of his coaching career at 14-19.

Kansas lost two key players from last season’s team to the N.B.A., the senior big man Udoka Azubuike and the sophomore guard Devon Dotson, and hasn’t been able to overcome their absences to play to normal levels. The Jayhawks are 13-7 and have lost five of their last eight games. On Jan. 2, they were hammered at home by 25 points by No. 8 Texas, the largest margin of defeat at Allen Fieldhouse since 1989.

On Monday, they fell out of the Top 25, ending a streak of 231 consecutive weeks dating to Feb. 2, 2009.

For coaches like Calipari and Krzyzewski, the ideal situation is a blend of elite one-and-done players and veterans. During the one-and-done era, only two teams that have relied heavily on freshmen have won the N.C.A.A. tournament: Kentucky in 2012 and Duke in 2015.

In recent years, the tournament has been dominated by veteran teams that had been together for several years and might send a couple of upperclassmen to the N.B.A. Villanova, which has won two of the last four N.C.A.A. titles, has eight players in the N.B.A., but not a single pure one-and-done under Coach Jay Wright.

“Those coaches do a great job of assimilating those young guys, and this year they weren’t able to do it,” Wright said on a conference call, referring to Calipari and Krzyzewski. “They couldn’t practice in the summer and the fall. And us, Gonzaga, Baylor are fortunate this year that we have a lot of veteran players. If this happened last year and we had last year’s team with no seniors, we would really be struggling.”

Even though experienced teams like No. 1 Gonzaga, No. 2 Baylor and No. 5 Villanova have been hit by at least one extended pause for the coronavirus this season, they remain the favorites to cut down the nets after an N.C.A.A. tournament that will be played entirely in Indiana.

“I think it’s always beneficial to have those older guys, probably a little bit more this year,” Boeheim said.

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