Kentucky, UNC, UCLA still sorting things out


Kentucky, UNC, UCLA still sorting things out

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.

Coach John Calipari had warned that this year's group would need time. They needed stronger play at point guard and lacked leadership from experienced upperclassmen. At one point, he even began ``Camp Cal,'' a three-week program with morning workouts and afternoon practice to improve his players' fitness and commitment.

``I'm coaching different than I did a year ago,'' Calipari said. ``That team didn't need the things that this team needs and this team there are things that, that team needed that this team doesn't need. So every year I coach, I have a different job.''

Kentucky has only lost once in the past seven games, and that 80-77 at then-No. 4 Louisville. The Wildcats won their Southeastern Conference opener Thursday night at Vanderbilt, though they blew a 16-point second-half lead before winning 60-58.

``We're real young, but guys have matured a lot,'' senior guard Julius Mays said. ``It's more a focus on the team instead of focusing on themselves. Everybody wants to see the team do well and we've put in a lot of work and a lot of time in and guys have been getting better individually.''

Things are also starting to turn around in Westwood.

The Bruins, who started the year at No. 13, got behind when Muhammad missed two weeks of preseason practice with a shoulder injury then missed the first three games due to improper benefits before the NCAA cleared him to play.

But UCLA (13-3, 3-0 Pac-12) hasn't lost since falling to San Diego State on Dec. 1, including Thursday night's 57-53 win at Utah in its first road game this year.

``I love those expectations,'' Bruins coach Ben Howland said. ``I think it drives your players to be the best they can be, to always have expectations that you're supposed to win every time you play. I think our kids have really improved a lot over the course of the season. We still have a long way to go. I really feel good and confident about our team.''

As of now, though, all three of the marquee programs are little more than works in progress.

``That's true of a lot of teams,'' Bilas quipped, ``but those programs and those names aren't allowed that.''


AP Sports Writers Gary Graves in Lexington, Ky., and Beth Harris in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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Scandrick, Hankins both visiting with Redskins soon


Scandrick, Hankins both visiting with Redskins soon

The Redskins will be taking visits from two former NFC East foes in the next few days.

Former Cowboys cornerback Orlando Scandrick will visit Redskins Park on Monday. Scandrick, 31, has been with Dallas since them made him a fifth-round pick in the 2008 draft. He has eight career interceptions and seven forced fumbles.

The Cowboys released Scandrick on Friday in a salary cap move. The Redskins would be attracted to Scandrick’s versatility. He can play either side at corner and, of particular interest to the Redskins, in the slot. That is a position of concern for Washington since they traded Kendall Fuller to the Chiefs as part of the deal for quarterback Alex Smith.

The Redskins have been trying to get former Giants cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to sign for the past several days, but they can’t come together on money. Scandrick could be a fallback if they need one.

The other visitor will be former Giants defensive lineman Jonathan Hankins, per John Keim of ESPN. Hankins, 25, was a second-round draft pick and played his first four years in New York. Last year he moved on to the Colts as a free agent. They are changing their defense and decided to release Hankins after paying him $10 million last year.

Hankins could bolster a defensive line that still needs young talent. It’s not known if he would be considered a nose tackle in the Redskins’ scheme. The Giants ran a 4-3 defense and in the Colts’ 3-4 he was used as an end.

The Redskins had former Jets defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson in for a visit earlier this week, but he decided to sign with the Packers.


Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page and follow him on Twitter @TandlerNBCS.

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Evgeny Kuznetsov considered day-to-day, will miss Sunday's game in Philadelphia

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Evgeny Kuznetsov considered day-to-day, will miss Sunday's game in Philadelphia

Evgeny Kuznetsov has been declared day-to-day with an undisclosed upper body injury, the Caps announced Saturday afternoon.

He will not play Sunday against the Flyers, marking the first time in four seasons that the durable 25-year-old center will have missed a game.

Kuznetsov, the Caps’ assists leader and first line pivot over the past week, was injured in the second period of Friday’s 6-3 win over the Islanders. On the play, he slashed on the arm by New York defenseman Thomas Hickey before he tumbled awkwardly into the end boards.


Kuznetsov did not return to the contest.

The Caps did not practice on Saturday as they made their way to Philadelphia, where they'll look to extend their winning streak to five games.  

The team, per usual, did not elaborate about the extent or nature of Kuznetsov’s injury. But it does seem to be a good sign that he was not listed as week-to-week—the designation the Caps typically reserve for more severe injuries. And with a two point lead on Pittsburgh in the Metro Division standings—and a game in hand—they can actually afford to be cautious with one of their most important players.


The injury does, however, come at a time when Kuznetsov appeared to be hitting his stride. Including the two assists he had racked up prior to leaving Friday’s game, Kuzy has amassed five goals and 11 assists in 10 games.    

Without Kuznetsov on Sunday, Nicklas Backstrom, Lars Eller and Jay Beagle will be the team’s most experienced centers. Travis Boyd and/or Chandler Stephenson figure to be deployed as the fourth pivot.

Coach Barry Trotz is expected to meet with reporters prior to Sunday’s game. It’s possible he’ll shed some more light on Kuznetsov’s outlook at that time.

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