They were the centerpieces of last season’s Final Four. But for further proof this college basketball season has been turned completely upside down, consider the plight of defending champion Arkansas and Duke.
Both perennial national powers temporarily have lost their way.
Arkansas is 13-3, but the Hogs, the first national champion since 1967 to return all five starters, have lost more games than they did all last season and are struggling to regain their equilibrium after a 104-90 loss Saturday to Auburn. It was the second loss in four games for Arkansas, which lost to Ole Miss on Jan. 3 in Oxford. Nothing has come easy for the Hogs, who have stumbled to a No. 9 ranking, during this stretch.
Duke (9-6), an ACC goliath that advanced to the Final Four seven of the past nine years, appeared frustrated and disorganized last week. The Blue Devils not only lost future Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski for several weeks with complications from preseason back surgery, but have lost four straight in league play for the first time since the 1981-82 season.
Auburn, coming off a fifth losing season in six years, handed the Hogs their worst SEC loss since they joined the conference for 1991-92.
“We make it harder than it has to be,” said Scotty Thurman, who scored 27 and tried to rally Arkansas with a barrage of 3-pointers.
But the Hogs got little help from Corliss Williamson, their All-American forward, who was held to 12 points on 4-of-10 shooting and three rebounds. Thurman took some of the blame, saying: “Sometimes we get caught up in the 3-point game. We have the best power player in the nation, and sometimes we don’t look for him enough.”
Thurman stuck seven 3-pointers in the second half to pull Arkansas within six. Arkansas tried to force the tempo with a rejuvenated trap, but Auburn (9-4), which got five 3-pointers apiece from Moochie Norris and Lance Weems, made 8 of 10 free throws as Arkansas resorted to fouling and desperation 3s at the end of the game.
Auburn made 20 of 29 shots in the first half, including 9 of 13 3-pointers, and prevented Arkansas from getting into its up-tempo offense.
The Tigers shot 70 percent, benefiting in part from Arkansas’ sluggish first-half defense.
“I think out of the 40 minutes, our guys played hard for about 10,” Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson said.
Arkansas blew out Tulsa and Jackson State, and beat Georgetown and Iowa. But the Hogs have developed a bad habit of spotting opponents big leads or squandering their own. Arkansas trailed by 15 in the second half before beating Oklahoma in the Maui Classic, and last week blew a 19-point lead before beating Mississippi State.
“I don’t know,” guard Clint McDaniel said. “I can’t even answer that.”
The mysteries persist in Durham, where Duke’s defense continues to break down. The Blue Devils’ loss to Virginia had to be especially painful for assistant coach Pete Gaudet, 0-3 as Krzyzewski’s substitute. Duke blew a 40-19 halftime lead to Virginia and dropped out of The Associated Press poll for the first time since the fifth week of the 1986-87 season.
This Duke team is not as talented as past teams. “You can’t compare,” Wake Forest guard Randolph Childress said. “They were arguably one of the best teams in the history of the NCAA. Guys like (Christian) Laettner. How can you replace a Grant Hill? He was the best player in the country last year.”
Senior center Cherokee Parks is a future pro, but the Devils have struggled to blend in three freshmen, so Krzyzewski’s teaching is sorely missed.
“When we have him on the sidelines, that’s at least a five-point advantage for us, home or away,” said freshman forward Ricky Price.
But there is no timetable for Krzyzewski’s return.
“If anyone had a reason, things would be different,” Duke sophomore guard Jeff Capel said. “We really don’t know why.
“Maybe it’s because we have spurts in every game where we tend to forget what got us there.”
Virginia guard Cory Alexander, 0 for 5 in the first half, finally scored on a 3-pointer with 9:39 left in regulation. He took over the game in the second OT and finished with 22 points.
When it was over, the Cameron Crazies were quiet and many of Duke’s players had cleared out before reporters could get to them, leaving Capel to act as team spokesmen.
“It was the farthest thing from my imagination to think that we would ever lose four games in a row, let alone start the conference off without winning,” said Capel, who scored a career-high 28. “Sometimes, it’s really hard to believe it’s real.”