Redskins

Kentucky, UNC, UCLA still sorting things out

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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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Redskins Talk live from Miami for Super Bowl week: How to watch, live stream, listen

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John Carlson's return to All-Star Game further cements his place among NHL's elite

John Carlson's return to All-Star Game further cements his place among NHL's elite

ST. LOUIS -- During the "Young Guns" era of the Capitals, Washington's hockey team was known for one thing and one thing only: Offense. Even the biggest name defenseman on the roster, Mike Green, was an offensive defenseman. He was among one of the top offensive producers in the game, but his defensive acumen often left much to be desired. When Green left Washington, John Carlson was quickly painted with the same brush.

A defenseman who can put up numbers playing with the Caps? Well, he must not be any good defensively. That perception followed Carlson for many years and he never seemed to get the recognition that his all-around play warranted.

Now in his second straight All-Star Game, that perception finally seems to have changed. Now there is no question that Carlson ranks among the top defensemen in the league, at least according to some of the game's biggest stars.

"I enjoy watching his highlights and just seeing where I can pick up from him," Vancouver Canucks defenseman Quinn Hughes said. "He's having a great year and it's good for him."

"I just feel like he's been on fire right from the first game of the year," said Calgary Flames defenseman Mark Giordano, who won the Norris Trophy last year as the league's top defenseman. "To be able to put up those type of numbers, trust me, it's looking a lot easier than it really is out there."

Carlson has finished in the top-five in the Norris in each of the past two seasons, but has never been a finalist. Now at the All-Star Break he appears to be the front-runner.

The Pro Hockey Writers' Association released its midseason awards on Thursday, a good reflection of where the trophy races stand at this point in the season. Carlson was voted No. 1 for the Norris. That should come as no surprise considering the historic season Carlson is having.

Through 49 games, Carlson has 60 points, the most among all defensemen. That puts him on pace for exactly 100 points by the end fo the season, a mark that has not been reached by a blue liner since Brian Leetch in the 1991-92 season. Heck, no defenseman has even reached 90 points since Ray Bourque in 1993-4. That's how rare and how special Carlson's current season is.

"It doesn't surprise me at all," T.J. Oshie said of Carlson's season. "Ever since I got to the Caps, you can kind of tell that he wasn't fully matured yet and his game wasn't to the level that it was going to get to yet. Over the last four and a half years now, he seems to just keep growing, keep getting better, keep getting smarter, more experienced. "

One-hundred points is a special number among defensemen as plenty noted at All-Star media day.

"It's pretty special," Nashville Predators defenseman Roman Josi said. "I mean, 100 points, that's a lot of points. Just for him to be on pace for that is pretty special."

"For a lot of guys it's unrealistic so you don't really focus too much about it," Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said, "But with the way he's playing and with the consistencies he's having with the production this year, I hope he breaks it."

But while Carlson's offensive production is certainly driving the Norris conversation, that is not why he is looked upon so highly around the league. He is praised as one of the top defensemen because of what he is doing at both ends of the ice.

"As a D-man, you look back, you talk about offensive defensemen, you talk about defensive defensemen. Nowaday you talk about two-way defensemen and John Carlson is a great two-way defenseman," Hedman said. "He plays against another team's top lines, power play, PK and production at that rate is unheard of."

For those who work with Carlson, the attention and praise Carlson is finally getting is overdue. To them, his play is only confirming what they already knew, that he is one of the best defensemen in the game.

"We're not perfect in any aspect of our game right now, but we're in a good spot because of John Carlson," head coach Todd Reirden said. "He's really received some more recognition than he has in the past and it's all well-deserved."

"Everyone talks about the points he has which are pretty amazing and pretty special," Oshie said. "But his play all around, playing PK, playing big minutes defensively, to play against other team's top units and top lines, in my eyes I think he's the best defenseman in the league."

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