In 2020-21, the NCAA college basketball landscape is unlike anything we’ve ever seen. And it’s not just masks on the sidelines and a lack of fans in the arenas — the absence of three perennial championship contenders in the top 25 is unprecedented in its own right.
For the first time since 1961, blueblood programs Duke (5-4), Kentucky (4-9) and North Carolina (5-3) all entered this week simultaneously outside the college basketball rankings.
Sure, one of these historic programs having a bad start is understandable — but each of them reeling at the same time is unheard of. ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas connected the struggles to one common theme.
“Well, it’s youth,” Bilas said on ESPN’s SportsCenter. “And 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 as quite as ready to take over as they’ve been.”
The coach Calipari model at Kentucky has long been a one-and-done system based on young talent. Usually, the Wildcats’ underclassmen-laden rosters can make up for their inexperience with elite talent. This year, that simply isn’t the case.
With eight freshmen on the squad, Kentucky is off to its worst start in decades.
“Kentucky is relying on all freshmen, and it has been difficult to get everybody on the same page,” Bilas said. “They do not shoot it well. That’s a team that has really struggled to shoot the ball. And the fact that they don’t shoot it well has put a ton of pressure on their defense to get shutouts.”
Dropping its last two games, Duke now falls to 5-4 on the year. Bilas chalked up his alma mater’s struggles to not the young players on the court — but rather, the reliance on one out with injury. Freshman forward Jalen Johnson missed one of the Blue Devils’ losses with a foot injury before returning on Tuesday.
With Johnson back, Bilas can see Duke turning things around.
“Now, Duke’s had Jalen Johnson out for a period of time with injury,” Bilas said. “He comes back against Pittsburgh. He has 24 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, four blocks and zero turnovers (79-73 loss). I mean, that kid can absolutely play, but he hasn’t had the continuity of being in there and they haven’t had the continuity of having him. Would they be better with him? Absolutely, for the season.”
Finally, North Carolina is certainly playing out of its comfort zone in 2020-21.
It seems like every year the Tar Heels have two or three key upperclassmen leaders. This year, the youth and inexperience is abundantly apparent.
After an outstanding season in 2019, expected leader and preseason ACC player of the year Garrison Brooks has suffered a severe drop off in production. The senior forward went from collecting 16.8 ppg and 8.5 rpg last year, to 10.7 ppg and 7.4 rpg this year.
As a result, a heavier than expected load falls on the Tar Heels’ freshmen backcourt.
“North Carolina’s got freshman guards — Caleb Love, RJ Davis,” Bilas said. “Roy Williams doesn’t usually play that system with two freshman guards. So they’ve been making mistakes, but they’re getting better.”
Let’s see if these bluebloods can overcome their inexperience as we head into tournament time.