It’s been a hectic, exciting start to the college basketball season with no real team standing out from the pack—well maybe Villanova—and several early upsets of potential title contenders. Midst all that, one storyline slowly emerging is how arguably the six greatest college basketball programs in history find themselves in the top 10, all with a chance at a successful, history-making season.
Via @ESPNStatsInfo: This is the first time since 1994 that Duke, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, UCLA are all ranked in AP top 10— Jeff Borzello (@jeffborzello) December 5, 2016
Yes, the Wildcats are still leading the way at No. 1 but, behind them, sits a mix of all-time greats and more recent success stories (No. 4 Baylor, No. 8 Gonzaga and No. 10 Creighton). UCLA, fresh off an upset of Kentucky at Rupp Arena, is No. 2, followed by Kansas at No. 3, Duke at No. 5, Kentucky at No. 6, UNC at No. 7 and Indiana at No. 9. As the above tweet mentions, this hasn’t happened since 1994 (ahem, looking at you, UCLA).
With so many historic blue blood programs having tremendous starts, where does UNC fit amongst them? Are they here to stay or will they fade away as the season progresses and some of the others improve? Will it be another frustrating season for the Heels, as the Blue Devils, the Wildcats or the Jayhawks take home the title?
It’s difficult to tell this early on but, at least when concerning these six teams, North Carolina appears to be somewhere in the middle, meaning there’s potential for title contention as much as there’s potential for an average season by UNC standards. One of the more bizarre aspects regards who is and who isn’t stepping up for North Carolina. Joel Berry II has alternated mind-blowing, top-10 player in the country games with truly horrendous showings—he seemed to barely be on the court against Indiana. Similarly, another enticing prospect was a full season of Isaiah Hicks in the starting lineup. Instead of upping his game, he’s mostly stayed the same.
Meanwhile, Justin Jackson and Kennedy Meeks have been two of the more reliable Heels early on. Jackson’s shooting has improved, and he generally looks a lot more aggressive and comfortable with the ball in his hands. As for Meeks, he’s rebounding better than he ever has and has helped form a formidable defensive unit in Chapel Hill. Throw in almost nightly amazing contributions from Tony Bradley and the slow improvement of Kenny Williams, and it’s clear how balanced this team is.
So how do they stack up with the other blue bloods? Well, they just lost to Indiana, who has also already beaten Kansas on the year. Somehow, they remain behind both in the polls—yes, they have an awful loss to Fort Wayne, but c’mon—and have a similarly balanced attack. As impressive as they have been this season, head coach Tom Crean has been typically outcoached in big games and tournament play. And that was with loaded rosters. This is a talented team, no doubt, but they might be bringing up the rear.
As for the others, all are legitimate title contenders given the ceilings they can reach by the end of the season. Duke has yet to play with its preferred roster and still looks unstoppable at times. Kentucky may have lost at home to UCLA, but it’s Kentucky. We never want to count them out until it’s at least tournament time. Kansas hasn’t been as impressive as everyone expected, but they again have the talent to improve into something unbelievable by season’s end.
And then there’s UCLA. Of all these major programs currently experiencing great success, UCLA is the one that hasn’t tasted it in a while, maybe since the days of Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook. Now with stellar freshman Lonzo Ball leading the way, the Bruins look to be back in full force. The offense is one of the best in the country, if not the best, and they play at such a ridiculous pace. Scoring 97 points at Kentucky isn’t something that happens all the time.
The question for the Bruins is how well their defense can hold up. It shouldn’t be too much of a problem in the Pac-12 but, during March Madness, they have to be able to get stops in crucial moments. Their offense paced them against Kentucky, though, and maybe this team can just outscore everyone they play.
As fun and thrilling as it can be to see smaller programs perform well early on or surprise challengers step to the table, there’s something to be said for the historic programs looking like, well, the historic programs they are. It’s why people say the NBA is better when the Los Angeles Lakers are good. College basketball is just better when six of the greatest programs ever all have a shot at a Final Four.
And North Carolina, for now, is right there with the rest of them. Berry is injured now, but if both he and Hicks can get more consistent, one through seven or eight, UNC can definitely compete. We’ll also get a good idea of where Carolina is soon, as they take on Kentucky in Las Vegas. Then they’ll play Duke later on in the ACC. Much like the Indiana matchup, those are sure to be hotly-contested and highly-anticipated showdowns.
Simply, it’s good to be a blue blood right now.