Wednesday, December 5, 2012
Experiencing an Early Code Blue
It's not uncommon for basketball teams that are highly ranked in the preseason to struggle. It's basically an annual rite of passage for some program whose team is in the top 25 before the season starts to fall into the abyss of the unranked. However, entering this week, we haven't seen anything like this.
Since the Associated Press basketball poll expanded to 25 teams back in 1990, only once had a top-10 team fallen out of favor with the voters in one week. Well, actually, now it's twice. And this stunner comes just one week after another highly touted team went from having a number less than 15 next to their name to having no number near it a week later.
The big shocker is that one Monday after the 11th-rated team in the poll disappeared from view, the 8th-best team in the country (according to the poll) did the exact same thing. The even bigger shock were the two schools associated with this vanishing — UCLA and Kentucky.
The fact that any team could fall so far so fast in amazing (a fall rivaled by the Missouri Tigers less than two years ago). But these aren't just any programs. These are two of the five most important programs in the history of the sport, a.k.a. a couple of the professed "bluebloods" of college basketball.
Court royalty rarely has an elongated streak of mediocrity. It's even rarer for two such powerhouses to be struck by "upset lightning." But what does this mean going forward for each team?
As far as Kentucky's concerned, I'm not worried about them. John Calipari has become the master of the one-and-done format. No person can turn over a roster with more gusto and more success than this guy. Last year's squad was very young. But alongside the phenoms Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Marquis Teague were two sophomores (Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb) and a senior (Darius Miller), providing the guiding force for the squad.
This time around, the incoming class was basically as talented (led by Nerlens Noel and Alex Poythress), but the incoming class is the team. The only player with substantial minutes from last season's Wildcats is sophomore Kyle Wiltjer. This will take a little time for all the new Kittens to grow.
The problem with Kentucky was all about timing. They lost to Duke in Atlanta. Fine enough. Then, last week, they got thumped at Notre Dame. The Irish are tough, physical, and usually experienced. Mike Brey's team isn't on the radar so far this year (well, they weren't until last week). The loss against Baylor would be a bit more acceptable ... if it weren't in Lexington. The defeat was the first for the Cats at Rupp Arena since March 9th, 2009 (with 55 wins in between). These factors combined to make an infamous bit of history for the program.
But Calipari will figure something out to keep this team at the top of the SEC, get them into the NCAAs, and, very likely, make a deep run in March. Remember the early questions we had about the eventual national champions? Those are far more distant than the memories of their tourney run.
The blueblood that looks to be in more trouble resides in Westwood. Ben Howland continues to feel the heat the rabid Bruin fanbase. It might be warranted after the coach led his UCLA teams to three consecutive Final Fours. But in the four-plus seasons since, the shine has slowly dulled on the revered program. Even with two tournament appearances in the last four years, cracked have shown up in the foundation.
From key transfers to off-court issues, Howland's California dreams have turned to occasional nightmares. 2012 was supposed to be a fresh start, though. With highly-touted recruit Shabazz Muhammad leading a studded recruiting class, the Bruins were supposed to make instant inroads to the top of the Pac-12.
Those roads have been a bit bumpy from the outset. After a thorough beatdown of Indiana State, the Bruins got all they could handle from in-state "little brother" UC-Irvine. UCLA's one-point win was a win, but it also was a sign of turbulence to come. A close loss to Georgetown two games later could have been predicted. You know, get the kinks out.
However, the kinks stayed close as the Bruins couldn't shake a Georgia squad that's had multiple struggles of their own (to the tune of a 2-6 record after Tuesday's loss to Georgia Tech). Then boom went the dynamite.
After holding an 18-point lead with 12 minutes left in the game, at home, UCLA did the unthinkable. They allowed Cal-Poly to not only shed some of the deficit. They let the Mustangs complete the rally and escape with a 70-68 victory on their own home court. I honestly don't know if Pauley Pavilion has hosted such a stunner inside its historical (yet renovated) walls.
A loss like this one could strengthen a team's resolve, as might have been the case with the Bruins thumping Cal-State Northridge three days after the shocker. It could also stunt their growth, which may have happened last Saturday as UCLA fell to southern neighbor San Diego State. The team will have more chances to show their mettle, with Texas and Missouri coming up before the conference season gets going.
But the Bruins have been put on notice. This may be the year that is scrutinized more than any other in Howland's tenure over the program. And if the upper brass isn't impressed, it might be the players' last chance to be led on the court by their current coach.
Blood can easily boil over and lead to change based on a matter of days. Even when that blood is historical. Even when it's blue.