Traditional powers rebounding to prominence
By JOHN MARSHALL
AP Basketball Writer
Butler's improbable run to the national title game capped off a unique 2009-10 season that saw numerous mid-majors rise in prominence.
Making this ascension possible was a coinciding fall by some of college basketball's power programs.
Connecticut, North Carolina, UCLA, Arizona and Indiana all missed the NCAA tournament last season, the first time that had happened since 1966. That meant three of the four programs with the most championships were out of the field of 65.
This season, it seems power has been restored.
Led by a surprising turnaround at UConn that even coach Jim Calhoun didn't see coming, some of college basketball's elite programs are, well, elite again.
Connecticut: The Huskies were a No. 1 seed and Final Four team in the 2009 NCAA tournament and followed that up by finishing 12th in the Big East last season, ending up in the NIT after a fifth consecutive first-round loss in the conference tournament. UConn wasn't supposed to be much better this season, either, picked to finish 12th again by Big East coaches. With do-everything guard Kemba Walker taking the reins, the Huskies raced past all expectations by beating some of the nation's best programs to win the Maui Invitational in November. That jumped UConn not just back into the polls, but the Top 10. Even after a two-game losing streak that ended with Saturday's win over Seton Hall, the Huskies are still No. 10 and, at 18-4, a beast again in the Big East.
North Carolina: The Tar Heels took a hard fall after winning the 2009 national championship. With catalyst Tyler Hansbrough gone to the NBA and a slew of newcomers taking over, North Carolina foundered through one of its worst seasons in 2009-10, finishing an un-Carolina-like 20-17 with a trip to NIT. Led by Harrison Barnes, the first freshman named to The Associated Press preseason All-America team, the Tar Heels have fought their way back into respectability. North Carolina, which faces rival Duke on Wednesday night, has already surpassed its regular-season win total of a year ago at 17-5 and has just one ACC loss. Even with point guard Larry Drew II leaving the program, the Heels figure to stay on track.
Arizona: Once one of the most stable programs in college basketball, Arizona had stumbled through a jumbled mess that started with Lute Olson taking a leave of absence just before the 2007-08 season and abruptly retiring right before the next. Sean Miller, the fourth coach in three years in the desert, tried to pick up the scraps last season, but the Wildcats faltered down the stretch run of the Pac-10 season and had their NCAA tournament streak end at 25 years. Led by super sophomore Derrick Williams, Arizona is back atop the Pac-10 standings and in The Associated Press poll -- up to No. 15 this week -- for the first time since 2007. The versatile Williams has developed into one of the nation's best players and the Wildcats (20-4) have plenty of depth, meaning another NCAA tournament streak could be on the way.
UCLA: The Bruins are the king of titleholders with 11 and had gone to three consecutive Final Four appearances under coach Ben Howland. Their run came to an end with the worst season (14-18) since 2003-04 last season, meaning athletic director Dan Guerrero, last season's NCAA tournament selection chairman, didn't have to recuse himself from voting for the Bruins. UCLA brought back plenty of experience this season, even without any seniors, and already has more wins than last season at 16-7. The Bruins have won three straight and seven of eight after knocking off St. John's in a nonconference game over the weekend and are second in the Pac-10 behind Arizona at 7-3. Storied coach John Wooden, who died last year, would be proud of this bunch.
Florida: The Gators took a big tumble after winning their second straight national title in 2007. Florida's starting five from those teams were all NBA draft picks, including three of the top nine, leaving coach Billy Donovan a huge void to fill. It took him a while to do it; the Gators missed the NCAA tournament in 2008 and 2009. Florida took a step back to respectability last season by winning 21 games and reaching the NCAA tournament, and had expectations ratcheted up this season with all five starters back to go with a talented freshman class. The Gators opened the season at No. 9 and moved to No. 17 this week after dropping out of the polls. Florida (18-5) bumped off No. 10 Kentucky over the weekend and No. 23 Vanderbilt before that to take control of the SEC East at 7-2 -- and another step back toward notability.
Indiana: It's hard to say a team that's 12-12 and just 3-8 in the Big Ten is making a comeback, but the Hoosiers' progress has been a bit skewed by injuries. Once one of college basketball's elite programs with five national championships, Indiana took a hard fall on the court and off after the phone-call scandal involving former coach Kelvin Sampson. The Hoosiers were just 6-25 with one conference win in 2008-09 and lost 12 of their final 13 last season to finish 10-21. Indiana hasn't exactly raced back to prominence, but has taken some small steps under coach Tom Crean this season, including wins over Top-25 teams Minnesota and Illinois. The Hoosiers probably weren't going to make the NCAA tournament and losing guard Maurice Creek and leading scorer and rebounder Christian Watford to injuries in a two-week span all but sealed it, but at least they're making some progress.