When Duke, Kansas and Kentucky each suffered upset losses within hours of one-another on Saturday afternoon, it sent researchers scrambling to find the last time those three titans of college basketball fell on the same day.
You had to go back to a time when 50 Cent’s ‘Candy Shop’ topped the Billboard charts, the iPhone didn’t exist yet and Britney Spears and Kevin Federline were America’s most discussed celebrity couple.
On March 6, 2005, Kansas lost at rival Missouri, Kentucky lost at SEC power Florida and Duke lost at second-ranked North Carolina. Exactly 4,717 days later, the Jayhawks fell at home against unranked Oklahoma State, the Wildcats dropped a road game at unranked Missouri and the Blue Devils endured a stunning loss to previously struggling St. John’s.
The lingering question in the wake of Saturday’s carnage is what it means in the bigger picture. Was this just a bad day for three of the sport’s most tradition-rich programs? Or is it a sign that this year’s Final Four may feature new blood instead of blue bloods?
It’s difficult to offer a definitive answer with five weeks to go before Selection Sunday, but it’s not too early to declare that each of college basketball’s blue bloods are more flawed than usual this season. None have been anywhere near as dominant or consistent as Villanova, Virginia and Purdue, the three teams that have separated themselves so far this season as college basketball’s best.
The most difficult to write off is Duke because it boasts a dynamic offense headlined by a flurry of future NBA draft picks. The problem is that the Blue Devils’ suspect defense more closely resembles the units responsible for early-round NCAA tournament exits against Lehigh and Mercer than the ones that contributed to title runs.
Anytime an opponent can use pick and rolls to force Duke’s big men to defend in space the way St. John’s did Saturday, the Blue Devils are in trouble. They’ll only contend for the national title if they fix those problems, perhaps by committing to playing more zone down the stretch.
The ceiling for Duke is higher than for a Kansas team that doesn’t have a single clear-cut first-round talent. The Jayhawks may yet find a way to win at least a share of the Big 12 title for the 14th straight season, but they’ve already lost more home games this year than in any other during Bill Self’s 15-year tenure.
With minimal frontcourt depth behind Udoka Azubuike and a dearth of playmaking guards besides senior Devonte Graham, Kansas is more vulnerable than usual this season, especially against an opponent that can bully the Jayhawks on the glass and limit their 3-point opportunities. It has often been a surprise when highly seeded Kansas teams have failed to reach the Final Four. This year, it would not be.
When Kentucky stormed back from a double-digit deficit to upset West Virginia last Saturday, there was talk that the victory could be a turning point for the young Wildcats. That conversation has since died as Kentucky barely survived struggling Vanderbilt at home Wednesday night before suffering a convincing loss at Missouri on Saturday.
That Kentucky is not as formidable as usual this season is no surprise considering the Wildcats lost their top six scorers from last season and replaced them with a freshman class that, while talented, is not as star-laden as usual. At 17-6 overall, 6-4 in the SEC and 31st in the KenPom rankings, Kentucky will have to finish strong to claim a top-four NCAA tournament seed. It’s hard to fathom a team as cold-shooting and turnover-prone as the Wildcats stringing together five or six wins in March unless they take a massive leap forward between now and then.
Flawed as Duke, Kentucky and Kansas may be, those are probably the best of college basketball’s blue bloods this season.
Reigning national champion North Carolina hasn’t recovered from losing last year’s three top big men and takes a three-game losing streak into its game against Pittsburgh on Saturday. UCLA is teetering on the verge of falling out of NCAA tournament contention and rebuilding Indiana may not even finish above .500 this season.
A Final Four with all the blue bloods watching from home would be a rarity in college basketball.
Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and Kentucky have combined to capture six national titles in the past 10 seasons. Only once in that span did the Final Four not include at least one of those four teams, the 2013 edition featuring Louisville, Michigan, Syracuse and Wichita State.
Were today’s upsets an aberration? Or could we be headed for a repeat of 2013?
Don’t bury college basketball’s traditional powers just yet, but they all have a lot of ground to make up between now and March.
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