North Carolina, Louisville, UCLA, U-Conn. and Arizona may find March sadness
Saturday, February 27, 2010
For perennial powers, it is an annual rite of February to begin gearing up for another deep run in the postseason tournament. The only difference for five of the sport's blue bloods this year could be the name of the tournament.
North Carolina, Louisville, UCLA, Connecticut and Arizona -- a traditionally elite five-some that has combined for 15 Final Four appearances and five national titles in the past 13 years -- are in danger of missing the NCAA tournament and having to play in the NIT. And the Bruins and Tar Heels, who have combined for 16 national titles, currently reside on the NIT bubble.
Fans are not the only ones angst-ridden during uncharacteristically mediocre (or worse) seasons. Connecticut's Jim Calhoun and North Carolina's Roy Williams have both used the word "embarrassed" to describe their feelings toward the play of their team, or in Williams's case, his own coaching performance.
"After the game it just kills you," Williams said of the worst season of his 22-year head-coaching career. "It sticks with you. Can't sleep, can't eat. And at the same time you have to do everything you can to improve."
The Tar Heels have become the powder-blue poster child for underachieving teams. One season after winning its fifth national championship, some regression was expected after losing Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington, all first-round NBA draft picks. But the Tar Heels (14-14, 3-10 ACC) have lost seven of eight games entering Saturday's matchup at Wake Forest. Injuries, most notably to forward Ed Davis, inconsistent guard play and an apparent crisis of confidence have derailed the season.
Much like North Carolina, UCLA has also found life difficult after losing talented underclassmen, chief among them Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook, to the NBA in recent years. After making three consecutive Final Four appearances between 2006 and 2008, the Bruins (13-14, 8-7 Pacific-10) opened the season 2-6 after losses to Cal State Fullerton and Portland, among others.
Regardless of the player turnover, Coach Ben Howland said the coaching staff is "ultimately responsible for building a good team. We have really struggled in that respect this year."
UCLA and North Carolina do not need .500 records to receive an NIT invitation, but teams that win their conference's regular season title and then lose in the conference tournament receive automatic invitations to the 32-team field. An eight-member committee then attempts to put the strongest possible field together.
The two usual Big East stalwarts have a chance to salvage their seasons after rocky regular seasons. U-Conn. returned three key members of last season's Final Four team -- Jerome Dyson, Kemba Walker and Stanley Robinson -- only to fall to 4-8 in conference play. The Huskies have renewed hope after winning three straight games, including victories over Villanova and West Virginia. But with a 17-11 overall record, their margin for error remains small.
"I have no misgivings about what we didn't do," said Calhoun, who watched his team struggle during his seven-game leave of absence for medical reasons. "All I care about is what we are doing right now. There is no look-back in life. There are no mulligans. I am just happy with what we are doing now, and we still have a lot more work to do."
On Sunday, the Huskies will host a Louisville team that also could be sweating it out on Selection Sunday. The Cardinals (18-10, 9-6 Big East) suffered three nonconference losses to non-power conference teams, including a damaging home loss to Western Carolina on Dec. 12. One of the few reasons they still have realistic hopes of an NCAA tournament at-large berth is because they accomplished something only one other team has done this season: win at Syracuse.
But Coach Rick Pitino has told players that they'll need 11 Big East victories to reach the NCAA tournament. And with a schedule that includes road games at Connecticut and NCAA tournament hopeful Marquette, that could mean the Cardinals may have to beat Syracuse again in the March 6 regular-season finale.
"The thing you can't figure out is where you get a win in the Big East," Pitino said. "We have a tough road ahead of us to get to 11 [conference wins]. We may need the [Big East] tournament. But we are right there. We are in a lot better shape than a lot of people."
While U-Conn. and Louisville still harbor hopes of earning at-large berths, Arizona is two weeks away from seeing its 25-year streak of reaching the NCAA tournament end if it cannot win the Pacific-10 tournament. Growing pains were expected under first-year Coach Sean Miller, whose team limped through nonconference play and has been unable to distinguish itself in a balanced yet mediocre Pacific-10. No Pacific-10 team may earn an at-large berth this season.
"We have never really had a big picture this season," said Miller, who believes it takes a couple seasons for players and a new coach to acclimate themselves to one another.
The big picture for North Carolina this season looks the bleakest. Williams has constantly adjusted practice times and routines, doing anything to try to improve chemistry and, ultimately, the win-loss record.
All the while, North Carolina is just two victories shy of the 2,000th win in program history. But there is no telling whether the Tar Heels can reach the mark this season. Concluded an exasperated Williams, "We hopefully are going to get there [at] some point in our lives."