Section: Sports

College basketball heavyweights struggle in 2020-21 season

College basketball heavyweights struggle in 2020-21 season

Blue Bloods like Duke University have traditionally recruited top talent. | FLICKR VIA KEENAN HAIRSTON

Four teams are at the pinnacle of NCAA college basketball: the Duke University Blue Devils, University of North Carolina (UNC) Tar Heels, University of Kansas (KU) Jayhawks and University of Kentucky (UK) Wildcats. These four teams are commonly referred to as the “Blue Bloods.” Since the introduction of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in 1939, the Blue Bloods have reigned supreme, with the Wildcats winning eight national championships, the Tar Heels winning six, the Blue Devils winning five and the Jayhawks winning three. It seems that every year, all four teams are in contention to earn a top seed and be crowned national champions. 

The Blue Bloods are able to attract the “cream-of-the-crop” talent across the country because of their rich history, famous coaches and a proven ability to fulfill many players’ childhood dreams of reaching the NBA. In the last 20 years, the Blue Bloods have produced a lottery pick in all but one draft. Kentucky produced at least one lottery pick for 10 consecutive years, the longest streak of any school. 

However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, teams have been forced to adjust to difficult circumstances. Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and Kentucky all fell out of the AP Top 25 rankings for the first time since 1961. At the time of writing, Duke is sitting at 8-8, Kentucky at 6-13, North Carolina at 12-7 and Kansas at 15-7. 

Duke and Kentucky are in serious danger of not qualifying for March Madness, an unprecedented prospect. The common denominator of their lackluster seasons can be explained in one word: inexperience. “It’s youth,” Jay Bilas, former Duke Blue Devil and current college basketball analyst, claims. “Coaches always tell you that youth matures at different rates. You don’t know what you’re going to get with young players. And Kentucky, North Carolina and Duke have a bunch of young players that aren’t as mature as some of the ones they’ve had before and, frankly, aren’t quite as ready to take over as they’ve been.” 

Bilas astutely recognizes the biggest challenge these programs face every year — developing young players. Perhaps the greatest struggle for Coaches Mike Krzyzewski (Duke), Roy Williams (UNC), John Calipari (UK) and Bill Self (KU) every season is creating a cohesive unit. Highly touted incoming freshmen must play alongside their fellow five-star recruits, which forces them to adopt new roles. Yet, even the highly talented teams like the Blue Bloods have not been able to succeed against more experienced teams this year. 

There are certain cardinal truths in athletics regardless of level. The Collegian asked forward Elijah Friedman ’22 on the Kenyon men’s basketball team about the difficulties athletic teams face during a pandemic. Friedman believes that one of those is accomplishing harmony on the court. “[It’s essential] to be able to expedite the process of blending first years into the program where they have a great understanding of their role on the team as well as the culture,” Friedman said. “Finding a rhythm has been much harder this season.”

 Due to the postponements and cancellations related to COVID-19, teams are waiting as long as two or three weeks in between games to play. This disruption is problematic because inexperienced teams and players are hindered from building chemistry and playing experience, even in top Division I programs. The Blue Bloods’ proven success should allow them to continue recruiting top talent and return to their previous prominence.

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