Thursday, February 11, 2010

UConn, UNC could play for a title this the NIT

What a difference a year makes.

Two of last season's Final Four participants, perennial powers Connecticut and North Carolina, are well below .500 in their respective conferences and seem like longshots to make the NCAA tournament. Combined, the Huskies and Tar Heels are 6-14 in conference play.

How can two teams who were so good last season fall so hard this season? The reason is pretty obvious: They lost more talent than they retained.

Connecticut lost the second overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, 7'3'' center Hasheem Thabeet. The Huskies also lost second-round pick A.J. Price as well as Jeff Adrien, one of two Huskies to record 1,600 career points and 1,100 career rebounds. Thabeet, Price and Adrien accounted for over 50 percent of Connecticut's scoring and rebounding last season.

North Carolina lost three first-round players in Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington. They also lost Danny Green, who was taken in the second round. Those four players accounted for 66.2 points per game last season, almost 75 percent of the Tar Heels' offensive output.

What makes this season even more disparaging for fans of both teams is the fact that even making the NIT could be a difficult task. Connecticut is just 4-7 in the Big East, while North Carolina is even worse at 2-7 in the ACC. Both of these teams are still talented, but they are too inexperienced to make a serious splash down the stretch this season.

UConn kept it close with #2 (or #3, I hate the variance in the polls) Syracuse until the end, while #7 Duke needed a late run to pull away from the Heels. In the end, both Syracuse and Duke showed why they are top-10 teams and UConn and UNC aren't. They know how to finish games.

The irony is that Syracuse was not picked to be one of the nation's top teams early in the season after losing their top three scorers, Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris. But unlike Connecticut and North Carolina, the Orange had reserves.

Leading scorer Wesley Johnson and sophomore Scoop Jardine both sat out last season, Johnson due to transfer rules and Jardine due to a medical redshirt. Freshman Brandon Triche has also made a huge impact.

On the other hand, neither Connecticut nor North Carolina has a newcomer averaging more than 6 points per game. Both teams were essentially eliminated from a potential NCAA berth with their losses last night in games they needed to win to show the committee they belonged.

It may not be March Madness, but there's no shame in young teams building experience in the NIT. Now it's just up to these two teams to get there.

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