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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.''

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

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Bradley Beal was the first guard cut from the All-NBA teams

Bradley Beal was the first guard cut from the All-NBA teams

Bradley Beal missed out on an All-NBA selection, and therefore, qualification for a supermax contract. Voting tallies show he received the most votes among guards that missed the cut. 

That's small consolation for the only player to average 25 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists this year, but still not make the All-NBA team. 

Here's a look at just how close Beal came to Kemba Walker, the last guard to sneak in. 

Walker (51 points) beat out Beal (34 points) more narrowly than at any other position. Klay Thompson received 27 points. 

It's rare air to be ranked so closely with guards like Walker and three-time champion Thompson.

Still, that hardly makes up for the earning potential the Wizards star missed out on this summer.

Damian Lillard, who was drafted in the same year as Beal, made second team All-NBA and qualified for a $191 million supermax contract from the Trail Blazers. 

That's a big-money difference for a very close voting tally.

On the flip side, that could mean the Wizards can afford to hang onto Beal. They would have had a difficult time offering him a supermax contract given their current salary cap situation. 

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If the Nationals’ season isn’t over, it’s close

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If the Nationals’ season isn’t over, it’s close

NEW YORK -- Dealing with tomorrow has often become the only palatable way for the Nationals to forget yesterday.

They lose in eye-gouging fashion, roll in the next day to reset, and, at least in New York, find a topper. That formula has them on a train home from what could have been a series for re-emergence, but instead placed them in a worse place than they started. Washington is 19-31 following a sweep in Flushing. It would have to go 71-41 (a .634 winning percentage) to reach 90 wins. If it’s not already, the season is on the verge of being over.

A slog-filled drive from midtown to Queens delivered the tired team back to its baseball quarters Thursday morning. Sean Doolittle changed then pulled his red hood up, sitting at his locker 10 hours after he stated he was “disgusted” with himself for Wednesday’s crash. Such a devastating night has been common for the 2019 Nationals. It was not for Doolittle. He hit a batter for the first time since May 29, 2018. He allowed four earned runs in an outing for the fifth time in 348 career appearances (1.4 percent of the time he pitches). In keeping with the season, the worst-possible outcome arrived at the worst-possible time, then another terrible one followed.

Martinez remained upbeat, sipping a morning drink concoction common in his native Puerto Rico. He rewatched Wednesday's game -- a masochist’s errand this season -- as he regularly does, went to sleep around 2 a.m., awoke at 7, arrived at Citi Field around 9:45. The leash on his future has been shortened greatly by the four failing days in New York.  

The Nationals wandered out for stretch and light throwing in front of an oddball scene. Thursday was “Weather Day” at Citi Field with the Big Apple-famous Mr. G hosting in his Mets jersey. Mr. G  -- known to his friends as Irv Gikofsy, New York City’s most popular weatherman -- kicked up a “Let’s go Mets!” chant down the third base line while the Nationals relievers ran routes and caught a foam football to get loose in the same part of the park. The recently re-emerged Mrs. Met, who popped back up in 2013 after decades of dormancy, used her giant noggin to nod along.

The game was another compilation of missed opportunities, bullpen disasters and bad luck. Washington left eight runners on base through the first six innings alone. The Mets’ path to runs was aided by slop and basics. Carlos Gomez single in the fifth. He ran to steal second, Yan Gomes’ throw went into center field, Gomez went on to third base. A sacrifice fly scored him.

J.D. Davis singled in the sixth. Todd Frazier was hit by a pitch. Stephen Strasburg’s wild pitch moved them both over. Another sacrifice fly scored one, a Wilson Ramos infield single scored the other. The Mets led, 3-1.

The Nationals didn’t score with runners on first and third and one out in the first. They did not score after Juan Soto’s leadoff triple in the second inning. They did not score after a one-out double in the third. They did not score with runners on second and third and one out in the fourth. They did not score with a runner on second and one out in the fifth. This is not hyperbole for effect. It’s facts. Sigh-worthy ones.

The only effective offseason signings are Kurt Suzuki and Patrick Corbin. The others have not just resided below expectations, they have been among the worst in the league at their position.

Gomes, acquired in a trade, leads the league in passed balls. He’s committed three errors in his 29 starts. Coming into Thursday, he had a 65 OPS-plus (100 is average).

Brian Dozier started the afternoon with a 73 OPS-plus and -0.5 WAR. Those two numbers would be worse if not for a recent uptick both in the field and plate from him.

And, the most egregious failure of the offseason has been Trevor Rosenthal’s saga. Martinez was asked directly Wednesday if Rosenthal simply has the “yips”. He said they still believe Rosenthal’s problems are mechanics, not thoughts, despite him throwing baseballs to the backstop in central Pennsylvania. The luxury-tax averse Nationals are paying him $6 million to do so.

Finally, Thursday was enough for Martinez to shed his tranquility. After Howie Kendrick was ejected in the top of the eighth, Martinez ran to home plate to start an argument of his own. He half-circled home plate umpire Bruce Dreckman, yelled, pointed and carried on in a manner that begged Dreckman to throw him out. He did. Martinez went from rankled to furious. He spiked his hat, kicked the dirt, and yelled some more. The event provided his third career ejection and looked to be among the final moves of a manager on the verge of returning to private life.

A strange thing followed: his team rallied for three runs to take a 4-3 lead. No matter. There’s no goodness Washington’s bullpen can’t undermine. Wander Suero gave up a three-run homer in the eighth to Gomez. New day, different reliever, same ear-bleeding outcome.

Which again made talking about tomorrow the only way to deal with the grotesqueness of today. Trouble now is tomorrow may not matter any more.

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