It's jarring to see some of the men's college basketball programs who’ve spent generations as the heartbeat of the sport unranked and sputtering.
Duke, Michigan State and Kentucky need miracles to reach the NCAA tournament. North Carolina is toiling on the NCAA tournament bubble after a down year in 2019-20. Kansas will make the NCAAs, but the Jayhawks are a shell of the perennial Big 12 champions we’ve come to expect.
How did we get here? It's a confluence of young teams, mismatched rosters and, in the case of Kansas, the specter of NCAA sanctions. Also, we’re feeling the initial impact of top talent fleeing to the G League and not ending up in Lexington or Durham.
Here’s a look at why the blue bloods are feeling blue instead of dominating as we’re accustomed. Is there a cure to what ails them?
Duke Blue Devils
The Blue Devils are 9-8, 7-6 in the ACC and No. 67 in the NET rankings. They need a miraculous run to avoid missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1995. (Mike Krzyzewski was relieved that season by Pete Gaudet, who went 4-15.) A Duke team that Coach K has coached in full hasn’t missed the NCAAs since 1983.
The issues: There are many. Duke’s most talented player, Jalen Johnson, was bedeviled by a foot injury and then opted out after a generally uninspiring season. Duke is physically unimpressive, apathetic defensively and generally not intimidating. They are just 6-4 at home, as Cameron Indoor without the Crazies is just another empty building. Adam Silver hurt his beloved alma mater by opening up the gates of the G League, as potential top-five pick Jonathan Kuminga was considering Duke and could have helped. But he turned pro, a trend that’s going to continue to hurt those reliant on one-and-dones.
Opposing coach analysis: “Don’t forget, they haven’t won the ACC regular season since 2010. How many guys are there are that are 19 that can help win in the ACC? The answer is that there’s not that many. They have five-stars, but not the right ones. There’s levels to this [five-star] stuff. I got a Mercedes, you can have one. It doesn’t mean we have the same car.”
It was almost inevitable that one of these years the pieces wouldn’t fit for John Calipari. Heralded freshmen Brandon Boston (29% from 3-point range) and Devin Askew (29%) have failed in attempting to shoot through their freshman slumps. (To be fair, top-10 freshman Terrence Clarke hasn’t played since Dec. 26.) With little chance to develop and a lack of superstars, Kentucky (7-13, 6-7 SEC) looks lost and headed toward the school’s first losing season since 1989.
The issues: Perhaps the most alarming part for Kentucky fans is that coaches saw a path back to prominence being much clearer at places like Duke and Michigan State. The typical Kentucky mass freshman exodus is expected, which leaves few program building blocks remaining outside Keion Brooks (11.6 ppg) and WVU transfer Oscar Tshiebwe (7.8 rpg). None of the three top-40 players Kentucky is getting for next season project to be the type that can catapults Kentucky back to Final Four contention. Does Calipari have to rethink his philosophy? Big Blue Nation is getting impatient and Calipari is getting defensive.
Opposing coach analysis: “Chemistry has been a major issue. The team was put together really poorly. There’s no spacing, awful shooting, the point guard can’t get by anyone and there’s no leadership.”
Michigan State Spartans
Imagine being around Tom Izzo everyday as he endures a 4-9 Big Ten season. That has to be about as pleasant as watching Michigan State, which can give an aesthetic nails-on-chalkboard feel even in good year. Michigan State (10-9) will miss the NCAA tournament for the first time since Izzo’s second season in 1997.
The issues: There’s no point guard. And there are really no excuses for there being no point guard, as it’s not like Cassius Winston left unexpectedly. Rocket Watts’ career hasn’t taken off. Aaron Henry has been solid, but he’s not a superstar. The supporting cast of a team Izzo expected to go 10- or 11-deep hasn’t offered much support.
Opposing coach analysis: “I think observing some of the [struggling blue-blood teams], if we had an entire offseason you’d still be looking at some of these programs as having not the year that they’ve typically have. The lack of point guard is a factor, and some of guys on the roster may have been overvalued. But it’s not a typical Tom Izzo team in some ways. They really miss the two pros that left.”
North Carolina Tar Heels
With the NCAA tournament canceled last year, many outside the ACC have forgotten that UNC was 14-19 and just 6-14 in the league. This year, they have pulled themselves to the NCAA tournament bubble at 13-7 and 7-5 in the ACC and just 1-6 in Quad 1 games. The last time UNC put together two non-NCAA worthy seasons, Matt Doherty was shown the door in 2003.
The issues: UNC plays an antiquated style with two big men, and the guard play has been sub-par. Teams shoot 3-pointers with too much ease against UNC, young guards like Caleb Love have looked overmatched at times and Williams’ coaching staff isn’t viewed as particularly dynamic. Williams appears at a crossroads for some changes, but that’s not something that comes easily. The only potential 2021 first-round pick on the roster is 6-11 Day’Ron Sharpe, who has started just three games.
Opposing coach analysis: “They’re lucky the season ended with the NCAA tournament canceled last year or people would be talking about the demise of UNC. It’s 2021, not 1991. You can’t have four big men on your roster and two centers on the floor at one time. There’s no way they can have their best five players on the floor at the same time.”
Kansas (16-7, 10-5) is a shoe-in for the NCAA tournament, but beware before you put them as deep in the bracket as you are accustomed. Bill Self’s team has no player who projects as a first-round pick in Krysten Peek’s latest mock draft. And they may not have a 2021 second-round pick, either. Kansas has nice players in forward Ochai Agbaji (13.9 ppg) and Jalen Wilson (12.8 ppg), but not the dudes they’re accustomed to.
The issues: The specter of NCAA enforcement is often more powerful than NCAA enforcement. And that’s what’s caught up to Kansas here, as the Jayhawks' recruiting has slipped because of their looming NCAA issues. (Yes, this all started in 2017 and still hasn’t been resolved.) Players in Kansas’ wheelhouse like Duke leading scorer Matthew Hurt and Villanova’s Jeremiah Robinson-Earl have gone elsewhere. Kansas has no commitments in the top 30 of 2021, and the loss of five-star Kendall Brown to Baylor stings the most. (He preps at nearby Sunrise Christian.)
Opposing coach analysis: “On paper in terms of talent, they aren’t comparable to Baylor, Texas or Texas Tech. This isn’t your typical Kansas team. There are no surefire draft picks on the roster, as no one has really played consistent.”
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