Friday, March 02, 2007

Rough Week For Recent Champs

Over the past three seasons, Connecticut, North Carolina, and Florida have each experienced the thrill of an NCAA basketball championship. Those glorious memories stand in stark contrast to the past two games for each school. For the Huskies, Tar Heels, and Gators, the past week has been one to forget.

Things were different just nine days ago on February 21, when all three teams captured victories. UNC avenged an earlier loss to NC State with an 83-64 triumph over the Wolfpack. Florida claimed a 63-49 win over South Carolina, who had beaten the Gators twice last season. UConn got the best of Rutgers by a 65-55 margin. According to Huskies coach Jim Calhoun, the key to the victory was “showing up at Rutgers for a basketball game.”

However, the three titans have only tasted defeat since then. UConn’s losses are not a major surprise, given the up-and-down season for the extremely young team. The Huskies fell 76-69 on Sunday to Louisville as the Cardinals completed a season sweep. The only stunning aspect of the game is that two teams in the 38-member Big East actually played each other twice. On Wednesday, UConn fell 78-74 to a Villanova team that likely secured an NCAA berth. Wildcat freshman Scottie Reynolds scored 40 points before fouling out with 40 seconds left, with Villanova shooting 40 percent for the game. With so many 40’s on the premises, Gampel Pavilion seemed like a 7-11 parking lot.

Unlike the Huskies, the Tar Heels were not supposed to endure a losing streak. On Sunday, UNC squandered a double-digit lead in the last eight minutes of an 89-87 heartbreaker at red-hot Maryland. That night, the big winner at the Oscars was The Departed, a description of the Heels’ second-half defense and rebounding. Coach Roy Williams was not any happier last night, as Carolina dropped an 84-77 contest at Georgia Tech. Another UNC Williams – Marvin Williams of the 2005 national championship squad – was stunned by the result. As a member of the Hawks, Marvin never expects the home team to win a basketball game in Atlanta. There is one silver lining to the Heels’ sub-par performance. If they continue to look like that, they won’t have to worry about playing in Atlanta again this season.

The Gators seemed particularly immune to a slide, having returned all five starters from last year’s national championship run. However, coach John Brady led struggling LSU to a 66-56 upset over Billy Donovan’s visitors on Saturday. As in Super Bowl XXXIX, Brady got the best of Donovan. This Donovan didn’t get to throw to T.O., but he probably did want to puke in a late-game huddle. On Tuesday, Florida went down 86-76 at Tennessee. There was one sight in Knoxville that no one ever would have expected. Not Pat Summitt in a cheerleading outfit, but Peyton Manning at a game where his Vols beat the Gators.

UConn will be expected to lose again on Saturday, as it travels to ninth-ranked Georgetown. On the other hand, UNC and Florida will get to return home as they take on traditional powerhouses on Sunday. If Kentucky falls to the Gators for a sixth straight time, Wildcat fans may feed coach Tubby Smith to some actual gators. As the Tar Heels get ready for Duke, they can be encouraged by the fact that they beat the Blue Devils on February 7 after coming off a loss. Since UNC enters this one after two straight defeats, they should play twice as well.

It is worth noting that the Huskies, Tar Heels, and Gators last won on Ash Wednesday. Perhaps each team waited a day before giving up victories for Lent. Or maybe they heeded the words of Genesis 3:19, a passage sometimes uttered by priests as they place ashes on worshipers’ foreheads: “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”