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Mike Lopresti | NCAA.com | January 24, 2023

4 preseason favorites who stumbled, regrouped, and are perhaps primed for a run

AP poll instant analysis: Andy Katz Q&A, reactions to college basketball rankings

Call them the Second Wind Quartet. Four teams, all picked to win their high major conferences, slumping into hard times, and now trying to claw their way out of their valleys.  

North Carolina. Kentucky. Indiana. Creighton. All were once in the top 10. Now you'll find them down in the others receiving votes section, their four combined points 186 behind Florida Atlantic. But note the clear signs of resurgence, and listen to their words of damage control. They are a testament to how long a season can be, with time enough to go thisaway, and also thataway. 

North Carolina

The Tar Heels came into the season ranked No. 1 and began 5-0. Then the trouble started. A surprise upset by Iowa State, the epic 103-101 four-overtime loss to Alabama, a 12-point whacking at Indiana, another loss at Virginia Tech. From top-ranked to a 5-4 record. Ouch. 

They've gone 9-2 since, and are two games off the lead in the ACC. They just beat North Carolina State as Armando Bacot had his 61st double-double to pass Billy Cunningham's school career record of nearly six decades ago and his 1,221st rebound to go by Tyler Hansbrough's Carolina career mark. Such fun days weren't happening much a month ago.

The revival began modestly, with wins over Georgia Tech and The Citadel. The execution was better, the defensive purpose stronger. "Obviously it's not a finished product, but we have improved," coach Hubert Davis said at the time. "Does that mean that we're exactly where we need to be? No, but I feel like we're moving in the right direction."

They beat Ohio State in overtime when a Pete Nance jumper at the buzzer saved the game in regulation. They've won five of their last six conference games. "We all came back for a reason," Bacot said of the Carolina veterans. "It's time for us to show how good of a team we are. We have the talent, we just have to be more disciplined."  

The news is good when the Tar Heels take care of the basketball and defend. In their victories, their assist-turnover ratio is plus-37 and they have outscored their opponents 220-160 in points off turnovers. In their defeats, the ratio is minus-15 and they have been outscored 99-53. Also, the team that was 310th in the nation in scoring defense after the losing streak has not allowed its past five opponents to reach 70.

"I was really encouraged with our defense," Davis said after the 80-69 win over North Carolina State, when they held the Wolfpack to 38 percent shooting the second half, including 0-for-9 from the 3-point line. "I haven't told them yet, but they ruined it, because they showed me they can (play defense). Now I have tape. I have proof."

He might want to keep that film handy. Three of the next four North Carolina games are on the treacherous ACC road, including Duke.

Kentucky

The Wildcats were No. 4 in the pre-season Associated Press rankings but early defeats by Michigan State and Gonzaga evicted them. Whenever they tried to build some momentum, they kept tripping over another double-digit loss. UCLA, then Missouri, then a 26-point thrashing at Alabama.

At least they were getting knocked around mostly by ranked teams, but when they were beaten in Rupp Arena by South Carolina, warning sirens started going off in Lexington, even though injuries had been a factor.

Then they went to Knoxville, out-defended Tennessee 63-56, came home to put down Georgia and Texas A&M, who had won seven in a row. It's hard to find something Kentucky has never done in basketball but when the Wildcats won at Tennessee, it was the first time in history an unranked Kentucky team had gone on the road to beat an Associated Press top-5 opponent.

Several areas have brightened, including the free throw line. The Wildcats were 312th in the nation in free throw shooting, but in their three recent wins have hit 77.8 percent. How did they manage to beat Tennessee with 35-percent field goal shooting, 19 turnovers and getting waxed 36-18 in the paint? Make 22 of 25 free throws. John Calipari seems encouraged with his rotation. So 13-6 and 4-3 in the SEC might not be what Big Blue Nation expected, but it's certainly an upgrade from a 1-3 league start.

"The avalanche brought them together," Calipari said. "The only thing that brings about change is a crisis. That was a crisis"

The response included a meeting without their head coach. "Two of my assistants were in the meeting and they just said they got emotional, the assistants did, because part of it was 'we're not doing this anymore, and if you do, I'm going to be the one saying it, Coach won't have to,''' Calipari said. "They said some things to each other and made each other talk."

"They knew I believed in them and at Tennessee, I told them, 'If I have to drag you over hot coals to where you're supposed to go, we're breaking through. So you can do it or I'm dragging you.'

"I'll be honest, as a coach it's way easier when they drag me."

Someone might need to be dragging someone Saturday. Kansas will be in Rupp Arena. 

Indiana

This was one way to get the Hoosier masses excited: Start 7-0 and bash North Carolina. Happy days were here again in Bloomington.

Not. So. Fast.

Indiana was upset at Rutgers, plowed over by Kansas and Arizona, then lost three Big Ten games in a row to Iowa (blowing a 21-point lead), Northwestern and Penn State. The league favorite was suddenly 1-4 in conference play. Also, key seniors Race Thompson and Xavier Johnson were out with injuries.

"You lose two starters and it's a shellshock to everybody," coach Mike Woodson said. "I'm not using it as an excuse. These guys, mentally, we were smacked in the face. When we started to go into the tailspin, the only way to get out of a tailspin — I've always believed this as a coach — you've got to work your way out of it. So practice became even harder and I became even more demanding. I wanted more, we needed more, and they responded."

Indiana has reeled off consecutive wins over Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan State, all by double-digits. The defense that leaked for 89 points against Arizona, 84 to Kansas, 91 to Iowa, 84 to Northwestern and 85 at Penn State, limited Wisconsin to 39 and held Michigan and Illinois under 70.

"Nobody panicked because there was no reason to panic because it's a long Big Ten season," guard Trey Galloway said. "We just kind of looked at ourselves in the mirror and knew what we had to do, and it was play defense and play harder."

And also get the ball to Trayce Jackson-Davis, who has been a beast inside: 35 points against Illinois, 31 to go with 15 rebounds, four assists and five steals against Michigan State.

Indiana's recovery will soon get a major challenge. No. 1 Purdue comes to call a week from Saturday. Zach Edey vs. Jackson-Davis. That'll play in the state of Indiana.

Creighton

As Thanksgiving approached, all signs were go for the Bluejays. They had cracked the top-10 and were 6-0, having just beaten ranked Texas Tech and Arkansas.

But who turned out the lights? They were beaten by Arizona and Texas. No reason to be alarmed by that. But then also by Nebraska and BYU and Arizona and Marquette. Suddenly 6-0 had turned into 6-6 and leading scorer Ryan Kalkbrenner was out with a non-COVID illness for several games.

They recovered to win three but then went on the road to Connecticut and Xavier and lost two more to sit at 9-8. Some perspective was needed. Creighton had played six ranked opponents in its first 17 games — four in a row over 11 brutal days — and none of them were at home. And the 7-1 hole that Kalkbrenner's absence left in the middle had been a heavy burden.

"You've got to continue to believe in your guys. If the coach doesn't believe in you, who's going to? coach Greg McDermott said. "I can't expect teammates and fans and everybody else to have confidence if the coach is doubting. We were really process-oriented, we really worked hard at trying to get better during that stretch even though it was very difficult for us."

The lights came back on with a home win over No. 19 Providence — finally, a ranked opponent in Omaha — and then a rout at Butler. Kalkbrenner was back to being himself, and Creighton has started looking like the team the Big East expected. The difference?

"We're healthy," McDermott said. "Part of that stretch, Kalkbrenner was playing sick and then he missed three games. These guys just kind of stuck with each other. They didn't quit practicing, they didn't point fingers, they didn't doubt themselves, they didn't doubt our plan. They embraced the process."

With Kalkbrenner a force inside, Creighton shoots nearly 48 percent, without him 40. With him, they average 77.6 points a game, without 69.7. Kalkbrenner has meant a plus-5.7 in rebounding. Without him, it's minus-8.6.

"I always knew we were a good team, I just realized that we were going through a tough patch," forward Arthur Kaluma said. "I really wasn't too worried about us losing those games, I knew we were going to get through it. It was only a matter of time before everything started clicking the way it had to."

He sounded convinced. Just like they do at North Carolina, Kentucky and Indiana. A major part of the narrative the rest of this college basketball regular season will be if they're right.

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