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Blue bloods adjust to unranked life, but Bruins surge

Blue bloods adjust to unranked life, but Bruins surge

Kentucky, North Carolina and UCLA are all unranked together for the first time in more than two decades.

The tradition-rich basketball programs with 24 NCAA championships between them are still seeking an identity after falling from the Top 25 due to inconsistent nonconference play fueled by inexperience, players in new roles and injuries.

The Bruins have shown signs of figuring things out now that league play has begun, but the Tar Heels and Wildcats are still struggling with consistency.

UCLA started the year with eligibility concerns over star freshman Shabazz Muhammad and a home loss to Cal Poly, though it has won eight straight. Kentucky lost three times in the first month and its latest freshman haul is still adjusting to college. UNC has started 0-2 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

"They've all got new pieces," said Jay Bilas, a player on Mike Krzyzewski's first Final Four team at Duke and now an ESPN analyst. "Kentucky is completely new. North Carolina is basically all new. Even the guys coming back are in different roles. ... It's a lot different being the first guy on the scouting report than being the sixth or seventh guy."

Before this season, the last time that Kentucky, UNC and UCLA were all out of The Associated Press Top 25 in the same week was March 12, 1990. But Kentucky and UCLA - both counting on touted freshmen like Muhammad and Nerlens Noel - were out of the poll by the start of December; North Carolina dropped out the day before Christmas.

Of the trio, the Tar Heels (11-5) may be on the shakiest ground. North Carolina started at No. 11 and reached ninth in Top 25, but it lost at Virginia over the weekend then at home to Miami on Thursday. And while the last UNC team to start 0-2 in the ACC won the NCAA title in 2009, this year's group hasn't shown similar promise.

"Our kids have been doing some really nice things in practice; we just haven't taken it from the practice court to the game court," said UNC coach Roy Williams, whose team rebounded Saturday to win at Florida State 77-72 . "When you play basketball at North Carolina, people expect a lot from you. I've got some really good kids that are hurting right now and they are also feeling a little stressed."

The Tar Heels are replacing four NBA first-round draft picks from last year's team, which has put a bigger burden on sophomore James Michael McAdoo.

In addition, the Tar Heels' four freshmen aren't making big contributions and two veterans - Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald - are returning from knee injuries that cost them some or all of last year.

In the Bluegrass State, the Wildcats (10-5) started at No. 3 despite losing six players to the NBA draft from last year's national championship team, including No. 1 pick Anthony Davis and No. 2 pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. But the Wildcats fell to No. 8 after an early loss to Duke, then slid out of the rankings after consecutive losses to Notre Dame and Baylor in which they failed to score 60 points.

Kentucky coach John Calipari warned that this year's group would need time. They needed stronger play at point guard and lacked leadership from experienced upperclassmen.

"I'm coaching different than I did a year ago," Calipari said. "That team didn't need the things that this team needs. ..."

The Wildcats lost at home Saturday to Texas A&M 83-71, breaking a 24-game home winning streak in Southeastern Conference games. They won their SEC opener Thursday at Vanderbilt but almost blew a 16-point second-half lead.

"We're real young, but guys have matured a lot," Kentucky senior guard Julius Mays said.

Things have started to turn around in Westwood.

The Bruins, who started the year at No. 13, got behind when Muhammad missed two weeks of preseason practice with a shoulder injury then missed the first three games due to improper benefits before the NCAA cleared him to play.

But UCLA (14-3, 4-0 Pac-12) hasn't lost since falling to San Diego State on Dec. 1, and the Bruins beat then-No. 7 Missouri.

"Our kids have really improved a lot ... we still have a long way to go," UCLA coach Ben Howland said.

All three of the marquee programs are still works in progress.

"That's true of a lot of teams," Bilas quipped, "but those programs and those names aren't allowed that."


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