NORMAN — Kentucky, North Carolina and UCLA are all unranked together for the first time in more than two decades.
The tradition-rich 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 Wildcats and Bruins have shown signs of figuring things out now that league play has begun, but the Tar Heels’ struggles have worsened.
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, according to STATS LLC. 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 (10-5) are on the shakiest ground.
North Carolina started at No. 11 and reached ninth in Top 25, but they lost at Virginia over the weekend then at home to Miami on Thursday night. And while the last UNC team to start 0-2 in the ACC won the NCAA championship 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,” UNC coach Roy Williams said Thursday night. “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. There’s no question about that.”
The Tar Heels are replacing four NBA first-round draft picks from last year’s team, which has put a bigger burden on 6-foot-9 sophomore James Michael McAdoo. But he’s struggling with the transition to a leading role after returning to school instead of entering the NBA draft.
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 (10-4) 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.