A season of ups and downs for Kansas, Duke, Kentucky and other blue bloods

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It’s been a rollercoaster season for many of the traditional blue-blood college basketball programs.

Defending champion Kansas is in the midst of a three-game losing streak. Kentucky has struggled for much of the season before making the move. North Carolina, which advanced to the national championship game last season, isn’t even ranked in the latest AP Top 25 poll. Neither is Tar Heels rival Duke, which has suffered a string of injuries under first-year head coach Jon Scheyer.

What are fans to make of it all?

Andy Katz and John Fanta are here to help, breaking it down and taking a look at the future prospects of several traditional powers.

Defending champion Kansas has hit a bump of late, losing three in a row heading into Saturday’s game at Kentucky. What do you think of the Jayhawks’ chances of making it?

Andy Katz: Let’s put Kansas’ three-game losing streak into context. The first loss was by one in overtime at Kansas State’s Bramlage Coliseum. Jalen Wilson had 38 in that loss. The 23-point margin of defeat against TCU at home was astounding. Losing to Baylor was not. Dropping three in a row in the Big 12, the deepest and strongest league in the country, is no cause for alarm. The only thing missing for Kansas right now is a No. 1 seed and maybe a spot in the Kansas City Regional. I’m not sweating this mini-slide.

John Fanta: I’ll never bet against a coach as good as Bill Self, and the Jayhawks will get back to their winning ways after this dry spell. Part of that is life in the best conference in college basketball, the Big 12.

That said, there is reason to worry about Kansas in the grand scheme of things starting in March. Because? The lack of firepower in the frontcourt is starting to catch up with the Jayhawks, as KJ Adams was a non-factor in losses to Baylor and TCU. As good a point guard as Dajuan Harris can be when it comes to distributing, he has only added five points in his last four games. Wilson is one of the best players in the country, and the importance of freshman Gradey Dick to this team cannot be overstated. That’s a lot for a young player, too, and they can get fouled, as they did with Dick against TCU (3-for-13 FG). Self has shown time and time again that he can throw a switch, but from a personnel standpoint, this team doesn’t have a particularly great sixth man, and they’re undersized. I’m not sure Kansas makes a deep March run this time around.

Issues at the top of the AP Top 25

Issues at the top of the AP Top 25

Mark Titus and Tate Frazier react when the top two teams in the country, Houston and Kansas, are upset over the weekend.

Can North Carolina flip the switch like the Tar Heels did last season?

Fantasy: The Tar Heels have won nine of their last 11 games and experience has paid off in March, so my answer is a resounding yes. That comes with a big “if” though: Caleb Love and RJ Davis need to be on a roll, and the Tar Heels can’t walk away from All-American talent in Armando Bacot.

Do I really think UNC makes another run to the Final Four? I don’t see it, because even though Pete Nance has been an addition, he hasn’t provided Carolina anything close to what Brady Manek provided a year ago. Right now, this team would be around a six or seven seed, so they’re in better shape than they were at this time last year. That said, timing is everything in the NCAA Tournament, and UNC was fortunate to catch an injury-plagued Baylor team in the second round last season. I like how North Carolina has been playing, but I don’t think lightning will strike twice.

Catz: Yes. The Tar Heels have already done that. They are healthy and looking for Bacot to lead them again. The guard play is as good as any team in the country. They tend to have defensive failures that need to be strengthened. Carolina will be seeded on her record and not on her talent. And that will spell trouble for opposing teams and top seeds in the NCAA Tournament.

What would qualify as a successful season for Duke in Jon Scheyer’s first season?

Catz: The Blue Devils will be judged in March, not the regular season. That’s not an excuse, but I’m not sure how many practices and games the Blue Devils have had their entire set of players. Dariq Whitehead was injured Monday night at Virginia Tech. So again, they couldn’t finish a game with their expected squad. Not having Jeremy Roach for three games also hurt. Duke has the talent to make it to the second weekend. The problem is that the Devils will not have an easy game. The seed will mean they will have a high-level matchup in the first round.

Fantasy: At this point, if the Blue Devils find a way to the Sweet 16, it would be a successful season. When you trust the freshmen to the degree that Scheyer trusts them, you’re going to get some hits in the conference. Monday’s loss at Virginia Tech, which was previously 1-7 in ACC play, dropped the Blue Devils to 1-4 in road games this season. Roach’s toe injury has plagued this team, and Whitehead went down Monday night with an injury that could be a cause for concern.

The bright spot? Kyle Filipowski has been outstanding, with at least 28 points in two of his last four games and six consecutive double-digit scoring performances. Mark Mitchell has also been solid, while Ryan Young has been a quality transfer addition. That said, the guard play is inconsistent and there is a lot of pressure on Roach to perform on the big stage. I still think this Duke team could click because the defense is solid, but the lack of perimeter firepower and the injury to Whitehead are major concerns.

What is the main reason for Kentucky’s struggles this season?

Fantasy: I will turn it around and be against it. What has led to Kentucky’s three-game winning streak? It actually started when starting point guard and SEC assists leader Sahvir Wheeler went down with a shoulder injury. John Calipari was forced to switch things up and found a longer, harder-to-guard lineup with Cason Wallace, CJ Fredrick and Antonio Reeves joining Jacob Toppin and Oscar Tshiebwe. After playing just 28 possessions combined as a group through the first 16 games of the season, those five have combined for 72 possessions over the past three games. Kentucky has outscored its last three opponents – Tennessee, Georgia and Texas A&M – by a total of 72 points. The Wildcats return to the right side of the bubble, and with Tshiebwe carrying the rebounding efforts, this team could make a March run if the perimeter shots fall more consistently. We can be sure of one thing: No coach in the NCAA Tournament will enter their first-round matchup with more pressure than Calipari.

Catz: The pieces do notThey don’t seem to fit in early in the season, and that’s a product of having so many newcomers. Not having a healthy Tshiebwe to start the season gave them a rough start. But Kentucky seems to have figured it out, and South Carolina’s loss may have been the bottom line. Winning at Tennessee has reinvigorated this team. They won’t catch Alabama or Tennessee or probably even Auburn, but finishing fourth in the SEC isn’t out of the question.

Kentucky upsets Tennessee

Kentucky upsets Tennessee

Entering the day with zero wins in Quad-1, Kentucky went to Knoxville and outlasted No. 5 Tennessee, 63-56.

What do you think of this UCLA team? Can the Bruins add a 12th championship?

Catz: Yes. The Bruins defense has been phenomenal this season. Jaylen Clark can defend with anyone and Tyger Campbell and Jaime Jaquez Jr. they can reach the hoop at will. The loss at Arizona, a game in the 1950s, was a defensive struggle against a desperate Wildcat team, so UCLA had controlled the tempo against the high-octane Wildcats. UCLA will enter the tournament as a favorite to beat Houston.

Fantasy: Yes. Yes. Yes. After Alabama, UCLA would be my pick to win it all if the NCAA Tournament started today. I love the makeup of the Bruins, and Mick Cronin has brought the cold toughness of his best Cincinnati teams to the Westwood sun. UCLA has an elite point guard in Campbell to steer the ship and an All-American caliber player who has so many winning tendencies in Jaquez. But beyond that duo, we’ve seen Clark and David Singleton double their scoring production this season. If five-star freshman Adem Bona can stay low, this team could cut down the nets in Houston.

Andy Katz is a longtime college basketball writer, analyst and host. It can be seen on the Big Ten Network as well as March Madness and NCAA.com, and hosts the “March Madness 365” podcast. Katz worked at ESPN for nearly two decades and, before that, in newspapers for nine years.

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers sports in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.

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