College basketball bluebloods taking their lumps 

Listening to Rick Pitino talk about playing Connecticut sounded awfully familiar to Edgar Sosa. If he closed his eyes, the Louisville guard could almost imagine that it was last spring and all of college basketball was watching his team.

"Coach told us, 'Play this game like this game is to get to the Final Four,'" Sosa recalled Monday night. "That's how bad we needed it."

Except that this was early February, not late March, and the Cardinals — a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament a year ago — were already in must-win mode. Their 82-69 victory over the Huskies gave them a winning record in the Big East and improved them to a modest 14-8 overall.

A similar story is unfolding at UConn (13-9) and North Carolina (13-9), putting three of the game's bluest blue bloods in danger of missing the NCAA field one year after finding their names on the top lines of office brackets everywhere. Barring some remarkable runs the rest of the season or through their league tournaments, all three could be lending the NIT some serious star power.

"We have to play our way into it," Pitino said of the NCAA tournament, lamenting his team's many close calls. "We played Villanova to the wire, we played Pitt to the wire and then some, and (West Virginia) and then some. I feel like killing myself right now."

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

Since the NCAA tournament began seeding teams in 1979, there's never been a time when three No. 1s failed to make the field the following year, according to STATS LLC. Only twice has it happened with two programs: Ohio State and Florida in 2008, and Temple and Purdue in 1989.

It would be even more stunning for three programs that have combined for 105 appearances and nine tournament championships. The last time the Cardinals, Huskies and Tar Heels failed to make the field in the same year was 1973.

"None of those three have a better than 50 percent chance, I don't think," said Joe Lunardi, who has made projecting who gets into the tournament a cottage industry.

"We're probably not talking about Creighton and St. Mary's and San Diego State on Selection Sunday," Lunardi added, "we're going to be talking about these guys."

There are several reasons for their collective downfall, from the indefinite medical leave of UConn coach Jim Calhoun to a few bad bounces and brutal schedules. But the biggest culprit may be that it's simply more difficult to stockpile talent.

In the 1960s and '70s, when UCLA coach John Wooden was winning national championships by the fistful, he could count on players like Bill Walton to stick around four years. Even as recently as the early 1990s, when Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski had a senior in Grant Hill, the best players rarely left early for the pros.

Now, the nation's best programs are forced into a balancing act every season, trying to judge when players might leave and what holes will need to be filled.

"It's much, much harder to have dynasties now because players are leaving after one or two years," said Fran Fraschilla, an ESPN analyst and former coach at St. John's. "Even the so-called elite programs are fragile now because when you lose players to the NBA, you're relying on young players to replace them, and for every Kevin Durant or Michael Beasley, there's 10 guys that don't measure up."

If that's not the biggest reason for the collapse of Louisville, Connecticut and North Carolina this season, it's certainly something they have in common.

Pitino lost athletic 6-foot-10 forward Earl Clark a year early, while UConn lost the nation's most intimidating big man in 7-3 Hasheem Thabeet. The Tar Heels and coach Roy Williams may have been the hardest hit, watching Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson — the nation's premier point guard — skip their senior seasons to join Tyler Hansbrough in the NBA.

"We've had a lot more team meetings," North Carolina guard Larry Drew II admitted Wednesday. "It's tough. It can be pretty depressing, but it all comes with the territory."

It doesn't help that talent is spread more evenly across the college landscape.

Waiting for the chance to wear Carolina blue may no longer appeal as much to a prospect who could play right away at one of the other 346 schools in Division I hoops this season. The rise of the mid-majors two decades ago has been followed by the rise of the low-majors, and the name across the front of the jersey means less than ever before.

Just ask Cornell, which dumped Alabama and gave scares to Syracuse and Kansas.

Or better yet, ask Louisville, which was given a pair of black eyes by Charlotte and Western Carolina in December. Both of those mid-majors are loaded with talent and could find themselves taking up real estate that once belonged to marquee names when the NCAA bracket is revealed.

"I have a pretty good perspective on it because I've been in the game a long time, and as each year goes by, it's harder and harder to win," said George Blaney, a college coach since 1972 who's been guiding UConn while Calhoun is on leave.

"Now even the Harvards and Cornells and William & Marys that you wouldn't normally think about are playing really good basketball," Blaney said. "When you go in to play a team that has a losing record, it doesn't mean that's an automatic win anymore."

One thing that North Carolina, Connecticut and Louisville have going for them is that they play in power conferences that provide plenty of chances to burnish their resume.

The Tar Heels still get No. 10 Duke twice and No. 21 Georgia Tech before the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, and Louisville and Connecticut each have multiple games against teams ranked in the top 10 before they open the Big East tournament. While that lineup may send most coaches scurrying for antacid, it means opportunity for teams on the outside looking in.

"What I've done for 21 years has been OK, but it hasn't been as good this time, so I'd rather try to figure out a different way to do it," Williams said before his Tar Heels lost to Virginia Tech on Thursday night, their sixth defeat in eight games.

"It's been frustrating, it's been disgusting — you can add any word you want in there, but the bottom line is, I've got to get this team playing better."

He's not alone.

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Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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