Pick 'n' Roll
Originally Published: Feb 3, 2013

Will Kentucky and UNC dance in March?

Robbi Pickeral

North Carolina coach Roy Williams says he doesn't start thinking about the NCAA tournament mix until after the regular season.

Kentucky coach John Calipari, too, prefers to focus on the here and now.

It's another thing the veterans have in common this season (whether or not they really are paying attention), as their blue-blooded teams find themselves inexplicably sliding all over the postseason bubble.

Nerlens Noel
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesKentucky is loaded with young talents like Nerlens Noel, but with that comes growing pains.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, you'd have to go back to 1974 to find the last NCAA tournament that didn't feature either Kentucky or UNC. Yet despite their recent victories -- each team has won five of their past six -- the programs find themselves in precarious positions: No. 10 seeds in Joe Lunardi's Bracketology, prior to their overtime victories on Saturday.

The reasons? Youth. Inconsistency. Defense.

UK (15-6, 6-2 SEC), the defending national champion, lost six players to the NBA draft after beating Kansas last April. Since then, Kentucky brought in ESPN.com's second-ranked recruiting class, began the season ranked No. 3 in The Associated Press poll -- and then slid all the way out of the ratings after falling to Duke early, then losing consecutive games to Notre Dame and Baylor in late November/early December.

UNC (15-6, 5-3 ACC), which arguably might have made it to the Final Four and perhaps played UK in the championship game last season if point guard Kendall Marshall had not fractured his wrist, lost four-fifths of its starting lineup to the draft's first round. With an eighth-ranked recruiting class and the return of would-have-been lottery pick James Michael McAdoo, it started the season at No. 11, rose to as high as ninth, and then fell out of the Top 25 mix before Christmas after an 18-point walloping at Texas.

Many other teams (and fan bases) might have expected rebuilding seasons, giving their programs a one-year pass.

But not the Wildcats, who after all won last year's title with a rookie-laden team; why couldn't they do it again?

And not the Tar Heels, who showed after winning the 2005 title that they were still capable of returning to the NCAA tournament despite losing six of their top seven scorers. Why couldn't they do it again?

"I think it is just the reality of it; the expectations are never going to be realistic," Williams said last week. "But sometimes, like last year, we were picked first, and what did I tell you? It didn't bother me, because I knew that was pretty close. This year, we were picked 11th, and I'm thinking, 'Wow, that's not the guys that I see.' But we've got a chance -- sort of like that [movie] 'Dumb and Dumber.' We've got a chance.

"I think it is part of the reality of it, that people aren't going to be realistic, which is OK. I'd much rather have unrealistic expectations than no interest."

Oh, there is interest for both teams.

Amid it all, the biggest frustration for Calipari: This year's team has been slower to buy into roles. The 2011-12 squad was special not just because of its uber-talent, but because that talent bought into the idea of "team" rather than personal accolades.

Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, for example, who went on to become the top two picks in the NBA draft, took the fourth- and fifth-most shots on the roster. And it helped that UK boasted a couple of more experienced anchors in sophomore starters Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones.

But UK, at least early on, has been missing that lightning-in-a-bottle mix. Instead of pressing the pedal in blowout after blowout, the Wildcats have experienced letdown after letdown.

There was that first game against Texas A&M on Jan. 12, when the Aggies reeled off a 16-1 run with less than six minutes left to beat UK 83-71, marking Calipari's second loss ever at Rupp as UK's head coach. There was the matchup three days later with Tennessee, which Kentucky eventually won by double figures but frustrated Calipari because his team allowed the Volunteers to shoot their way back into it in the second half.

Then, after a maybe-they're-finally-getting-it-together win at Auburn, there was the letdown at Alabama, when the Tide opened the second half with a game-turning 11-1 run and held the Wildcats to 22 second-half points.

That's why, after Kentucky's could-be-groundbreaking win at Old Miss on Tuesday night, Calipari -- whose team needed overtime to win at Texas A&M in a Saturday rematch -- was still tempering expectations and preaching the need for improvement.

"It's good," he said after the victory over the Rebels. "But look, our thing is way out in front of us still. We came from Auburn and did what we did. And then what did we do the next game? … Two guys didn't show up for the game [at Alabama]; they might as [well] not have gotten on the bus. So we have a long ways to go."

The same thing could be said in Chapel Hill, where the Tar Heels are still trying to fit together pieces that seem to come from a few different puzzles.

Marcus Paige
Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon SMIMarcus Paige was handed the keys to UNC's offense the moment he stepped on campus.

Marcus Paige, a freshman starting at point guard who scored a career-high 19 points during Saturday's overtime win over Virginia Tech, has shown both promise and regression and really could have used a year behind Marshall.

None of the Tar Heels' young centers have stepped forward to help take the pressure off sophomore McAdoo, and that hurts an offense that runs best when going through the post.

Points have sometimes been at a premium. Defense has been sporadic for too many spurts.

And there's a lack of cohesion and toughness...