|Kentucky and North Carolina are struggling this season, making the basketball world seem off. (thesportsfanjournal.com)|
Two of the most famous college basketball colors of blue are on the verge of not making the NCAA Tournament in March.
Kentucky and North Carolina have both fallen from the top of their respective conferences and national relevance this season after massive personnel overhauls. Kentucky (10-5) has lost every big game it's played this season (Duke, Notre Dame, Baylor, Louisville and Texas A&M) and probably wouldn't make the tournament if the season ended today. UNC (11-5) has ugly losses on the resume (Texas and a blowout to Indiana, while also losing a tough game to Butler in Maui) and started ACC play 0-2 without either of those coming against the top two conference teams, Duke and NC State (instead they came at the hands of Virginia and Miami).
No one is feeling sorry for these two. High player turnover is a price the great teams pay for college basketball being a quick pit stop for the NBA. The same NBA talent that can help a team reach an Elite Eight or even a National Championship one year can leave that team with massive holes the next, as is the case with our two struggling powerhouses. But that is a challenge great teams face. Ask any mid-major if they would trade a Final Four for losing its best players the next year and they'd jump at it in a heartbeat.
It may not go as far as hurting the game. It may hurt a little in March when these two large, traveling fan bases are going to the NIT in New York rather than Atlanta or one of the regional NCAA Tournament sites. The Kentucky and North Carolina names alone carry enough weight to make TV viewership high. But for every blue blood having a down year there is a budding mid-major program ready to shock the world to take its place. And believe it or not, upsets and Cinderella stories do great things for TV ratings.
I would like to think maybe these poor performances could do some good toward changing the NBA Draft rule, keeping good players in school longer (or just letting them leave out of high school) and enhancing the game. After all, other teams like Duke, Louisville and Kansas are winning with senior leadership. But this is unlikely. The game is too far into John Calipari's strategy of cycling through NBA talent like an assembly line every year to be changed after one unsuccessful season.
The fact is, love them or hate them, college basketball is at its best when the big-name programs are relevant. It was the same when Indiana was rebuilding several years ago. The basketball world just didn't feel right with the Hoosiers losing 20 games in a season in 2010-11.
Rivals of Kentucky and UNC aren't crying right now, as they have a chance to take advantage of an easier road to a conference and national championship. Plus, there's a distinct and powerful pleasure in seeing a rival team failing to live up to expectations, as if your team had anything to do with it. But a part of Duke or Florida must be disappointed. A rivalry loses its energy when one team is down. Duke may beat UNC by 15 at Cameron this year, which the Blue Devils would enjoy, but not to the extent that the win would have been enjoyed a season ago.
Beating Kentucky while they're down doesn't have nearly the satisfaction of when they're a title contender. It's like fighting Muhammad Ali well past his prime. You stand more of a chance at winning, but the satisfaction of victory is not the same. Competitors want opponents at their best. When they're great, the school names on the front of both those blue jerseys are a target of accomplishment and a feat few others can secure. Each conference game against Kentucky is the biggest game of the year for SEC teams.
It's strange not seeing North Carolina and Kentucky scores scrolling across the bottom of the screen with the rest of the top 25 games. It feels like a weird joke that doesn't make sense. Kentucky and UNC are always ranked. That's just how we've been trained to think thanks to decades of dominance. It just doesn't feel right.
Kentucky and UNC fans should take this season to appreciate all the success their programs have seen. This is proof that this season is not gift wrapped just because they've done well in the past. Cherish the success, because it won't always be there. The rest of the country will be waiting patiently, some enjoying the wait, while these two programs get better once more and the target can again be placed on the school name written on the front of those blue jerseys and the college basketball world can feel right again.