Category Archives: 2021

Why are blue blood college basketball programs struggling?

A blue blood is someone who is wealthy and powerful. In terms of college basketball, the phrase describes programs that have consistently produced postseason success, won championships and sent players to the NBA.

However, blue blood programs like Duke, Kentucky and Michigan State have suffered through varying degrees of struggles during the 2020-2021 season. 

What has caused this decline? The answer is multi-layered.

The number one problem could be the COVID-19 pandemic that has caused not only games to be postponed, but has had lasting effects on players who test positive. 

Former Duke star Jayson Tatum said he has struggled to breathe since returning to the floor after a bout with COVID. On the gridiron, Myles Garrett expressed similar sentiments. 

When it comes to tangible statistics, consider Purdue’s Sasha Stefanovic, who tested positive for COVID in January and since returning has scored a total of four points after leading the Big Ten in three-point shooting percentage. 

“I’ve talked to Mike (Krzyzewski), Roy (Williams) and all the guys I’m on the (NCAAB) committee with and a lot of people are talking about the exact same things and I don’t think you can appreciate it unless you have kids going through a tough time with the COVID,” MSU head coach Tom Izzo told local reporters during his weekly press conference on Feb. 18. “They always say mental health, it’s hard to handle yourself mentally with all the things that have been thrown at them this year (with the pandemic) so then you lose a little bit and it gets exacerbated. There’s no question about it.”

UNC sits at 13-7 while Kentucky, Duke and MSU (¾ of the Champions Classic) combine for a 26-29 record. A far cry from when these three teams were in the Final Four six seasons ago. 

But is COVID the sole reason behind the struggles? No, fans can also easily forget the importance of offseason practices, preseason exhibition games and the camaraderie of being in a team setting… all of which has been stripped away in the world of social distancing. 

Another interesting note is that the three blue bloods mentioned above rely heavily on either freshman or players that didn’t play over the past few seasons. Duke and Kentucky have gone the “one and done” recruiting route but their players never got a chance to assimilate into college basketball action before the season started.

Duke, Kentucky and MSU have also all used freshmen guards like A.J. Hoggard, Brandon Boston Jr. and Jeremy Roach to lead their teams. 

Conversely, the teams that lead the ACC, Big Ten and SEC have been able to rely on upperclassmen talent at the guard positions. Illinois’ Ayo Dosunmu, Alabama’s John Petty Jr. and UVA’s Kihei Clark have all had big impacts. 

With that being said, how many years have teams like Illinois, Alabama, Tennessee, UVA and Iowa finished above the blue bloods in the standings and in the AP Top 10? Not only are the blue bloods struggling, but teams who haven’t enjoyed the same level of consistency over the past 20 years are now having all-time seasons.  

We talked about the lack of offseason, COVID-19, the importance of veteran guards and the emergence of new conference threats but should the blue bloods be worried long term? Probably not.

Longevity means something. Duke and MSU have made the NCAA tournament 24 and 22 consecutive years, respectively. That doesn’t happen by accident. John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats followed up missing the NCAA tournament in 2013 with a championship appearance in 2014, after winning the championship in 2012.

Kentucky head coach John Calipari (pictured sitting in the team huddle) talks to his team during the 2013-2014 season. Just a season prior, his team missed the tournament. Will the Wildcats make a similar turnaround next year?

In statistics, we would call the 2020-2021 season an outlier for the blue bloods so if you’re a fan of those teams… don’t worry it will probably get better and if you aren’t… enjoy the misery of some of college basketball’s elites. 

Josh Christopher SG-Arizona State: In-game report, Arizona, 1-21-21

Christopher’s ball handling continues to impress in the open court, and it has actually been an impressive part of his game since his days as a Las Vegas prepster. Early in the second half against Arizona (11-3, 5-3), he used a crossover, kept his balance and then finished at the cup for a bucket while drawing the foul, eventually finishing for a three-point play (2nd Half/16:36, Arizona ’21).  The former five-star recruit is averaging 16.6 points and 5.3 rebounds per game for a Sun Devils team that has largely disappointed in 2020-21.

Later, he ran the court and just missed an opportunity for a transition shot block due to a goal tend.  On the team’s next possession he knocked down a corner three off the catch-and-shoot to tie the score at 48.  If it wasn’t enough, he was seen hustling for a loose ball to try and save a ball going out of bounds in-between those sequences.

Christopher contests versus drives to the basket in transition defense without fouling, even when giving up baskets in these instances (2nd half, Arizona ’21).  Fouls, however, have been an issue in his first 11 career contests, posting four or more in five games. Becoming a more efficient passer within half court sets is an area that he could also look to improve the rest of the season.

Christopher (No. 13 pictured in a 2019 AAU matchup for Vegas Elite AAU) has connected on 81.3% of his free throw attempts in 2020-21 (through 1-22-21).

His activity has to be a factor in all phases because he isn’t efficient behind the three-point line (25%), yet shoots 45% from the field and is excellent from the free throw line (85%). As a unit, the Sun Devils have a tendency to play in spurts. After Christopher nailed a three-pointer at the 2:24 mark of the second half to put Arizona State (4-7, 1-4) up 82-77, the Wildcats ran off the last seven points of the game to close out an 84-82 victory.

John Petty, Jr. SG-Alabama: Scouting snapshot

Petty has been one of the more consistent players in the SEC over the last four seasons and he has rightfully earned his place as one of the most impressive long range artists in the country. Want proof? Over his last three games, the senior guard is connecting at a blistering 65% rate from behind the three-point line.

Aside from just shooting three-point shots at a high rate (698 career attempts as of 1/20/21), he’s been rather efficient, connecting at 39.1% clip for his career. Petty very easily could have joined fellow Crimson Tide guard Kira Lewis in the 2020 NBA Draft if he had chosen to leave school a year early.

Petty (seen pictured in 2016 with his Team Penny AAU squad) has made 17 three-pointers in his last three contests.

Instead, Petty -a former AAU standout with Team Penny dating all the way back to 2016- stayed in school for one more season to increase the chances of hearing his name called in the first round of the 2021 NBA Draft. The 18th-ranked Crimson Tide currently lead the SEC in three-point field goals per game (11) and rank sixth in the country in that same category (175 three-pointers).

The former five-star recruit stands out from the either the left or right wings off the catch-and-shoot, but he has also displayed his quick release from the corners of the court. He connected on 80% of his 10 three-point shots (made his first seven) to lead an Alabama charge that finished with an SEC-record 23 three-pointers in a resounding 105-75 win over LSU.

Petty posted four steals in a 73-71 loss to Western Kentucky on December 19, 2020.

The Crimson Tide improved to 7-0 in SEC play and are led by a sharp shooter who plays on both ends of the floor. Aside from his three-point barrage, Petty also contributed three steals versus the Tigers (1/20/21). He has averaged over a steal per game in each of the last two seasons while also attacking the glass with vengeance. He tallied 6.6 rebounds per game in 2019-20 and is currently averaging 5.2 rebounds per game. After struggling with turnovers in 2019-20 (nine games with four or more turnovers), he is taking better care of the basketball as a senior (nine games with one or fewer turnovers).

Deal or No Beal?

Like most in the NBA, every team dreams of having a dynamic duo like Pippen and Jordan, Shaq and Kobe, or James and Davis. After another disappointing season in 2019-20, the Washington Wizards decided to try and stir up a dynamic duo of their own with newly-traded Russell Westbrook and returning All-Star Bradley Beal.

Excited by the potential combination, in an interview Beal commented, “I definitely think he [Westbrook] will propel me to a new level that I haven’t tapped into yet. I’m definitely excited about it (Chase).” However, the experiment currently boiling in DC has so far shown early signs of failure. Currently sitting at 2-6, the Wizards win just once for every four contests. The team’s projected 18-54 record would be worse than their 25-47 mark from a season ago.

To make matters worse, the expected dynamic duo’s stands at just 1-5, as Westbrook did not contribute to the win against the Timberwolves; which leaves most spectators wondering if the All-Star combination is creating more damage than good. Last season, Westbrook finished with a career-high 47.2% field goal percentage , and this season his average has decreased to 39.5% (Russell Westbrook Stats). On the other hand, Beal shot 45.5% from the field in 2019-20, which has increased slightly to 47.9% this season, although it is an average he has held before (Bradley Beal Stats).

Washington Wizards G Russell Westbrook
Washington Wizards guard Russell Westbrook, pictured in the 2016 NBA All-Star Game, is projected to miss nearly a month with a quadriceps injury. He was also sidelined in the 2020 NBA Playoffs with a quadriceps injury.

Beyond the numbers, what the statistics fail to present spectators with is the lack of time (a period of only nine days before preseason) that the All-Stars have had to click. While some might argue that Westbrook and Beal are not the type of guards who can share a court, when speaking about constructive criticism from Westbrook, Beal said, “I’m a constructive criticism guy. I can take it. I love when guys get on my head, tell me to play better, tell me to go. Light a fire, fuel up under me; I like that (Chase).”

The Wizards, led by Bradley Beal’s league-best 34.9 points per game, currently rank second in the NBA in scoring (120.5) and are second-worst in points allowed (121.3).

For now, the lack of time might be enough to justify why the experiment has failed thus far. Just as it takes time to practice perfecting free throws and fadeaways, it takes time to practice gelling with a new team. Even though both players have talked about their powerful potential, everyone knows that actions speak louder than words, and the window of using time as an excuse is quickly running out. These two players must learn how to boost each others’ strengths and shield each others’ weaknesses or else the public will eventually have valid reasons to declare the experiment as unsuccessful.

And with Beal’s two-year max extension coming to an end at the conclusion of the 2020-21 campaign, an unsuccessful partnership may provide an answer to the original question of Deal or No Beal.

No Beal.

EDITOR’s UPDATE: Following the team’s 128-107 victory over the Phoenix Suns on January 11, 2021, the Wizards announced five positive COVID-19 tests and postponed the next four games.

Works Cited

  1. Chase Hughes. “Beal Says Westbrook Will Take His Game up a Level.” RSN , 15 Dec. 2020,
    www.nbcsports.com/washington/wizards/bradley-beal-says-russell-westbrook-will-take-h
    is-game-level.
  2. “Russell Westbrook Stats.” ESPN , ESPN Internet Ventures,
    www.espn.com/nba/player/stats/_/id/3468/russell-westbrook.
  3. “Bradley Beal Stats, News, Bio.” ESPN , ESPN Internet Ventures,
    www.espn.com/nba/player/_/id/6580/bradley-beal.