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UCLA, Villanova men’s basketball teams slide backwards

When their teams got set to tip off in the second round of the 2009 NCAA Tournament, Ben Howland was at the top of his profession and Jay Wright sure appeared to be on his way there.

Howland’s UCLA Bruins had been to three consecutive Final Fours and Wright, whose Villanova squad beat UCLA that day, was en route to a Final Four.

Both figured to be winning games at their respective schools for years if not decades to come.

But three years later, both coaches could be looking for work in mid-March unless the teams turn their seasons around.

It’s been a rough week following rough years for Howland and Wright, whose once adoring fan bases are quickly getting restless.

Howland’s team suffered through not only a down season in 2011-12 (19-14, no postseason) by its standards, but an embarrassing one as Sports Illustrated wrote a story detailing the off-court misbehavior and on-court problems of one of the sport’s most storied programs.

This was supposed to be a bounce-back year in Westwood with the arrival of Shabazz Muhammad, arguably the nation’s top high school player.

But even when the Bruins were at 4-1, there were reasons for concern. They lost to a good Georgetown team, but needed overtime to beat UC-Irvine and barely held on to edge a mediocre Georgia squad that lost to Youngstown State earlier this season.

But the biggest blow came Sunday night. With 12 minutes left, the Bruins had a 51-33 lead over Cal Poly, which was picked to finish seventh in the not-especially-tough Big West. But the Mustangs went on a 34-14 run to stun UCLA, 70-68.

Villanova fell even further. The Wildcats followed their Final Four run with back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances at 25-8 (2009-10) and 21-12 (2010-11).

But things fell apart last year at 13-19 and back-to-back losses to Ivy League middler Columbia and Philadelphia also-ran La Salle have dropped Nova to 2-3 against Division I teams this season.

MY TOP 10 — I leapfrogged Duke over Indiana into the No. 1 spot on my AP Top 25 ballot this week. With wins over Louisville, Kentucky and Minnesota, nobody’s resume matches the Blue Devils.

Indiana is No. 2 followed by 3. Ohio State; 4. Syracuse; 5. Michigan; 6. Louisville; 7. Kentucky; 8. Oklahoma State; 9. Florida and 10. Missouri.

For the rest of my Top 25 visit the College Hoop Week Guide on Gazettenet’s UMass Sports Blog at http://www.gazettenet.com/Blogs/UMassSports/.

GAMES OF THE WEEK — No. 14 North Carolina at No. 1 Indiana, tonight, 9:30 p.m. — This matchup of blue bloods is a good one in any year, but it’s especially so this year.

No. 4 Ohio State at No. 2 Duke, Wednesday, 9:30 p.m. — Duke has already knocked off a team ranked No. 2 (Louisville) and another ranked No. 3 (Kentucky). Is No. 4 next?

ATLANTIC 10 GAME OF THE WEEK — Miami at UMass, Saturday, 2 p.m. — The Hurricanes aren’t quite as good as either North Carolina State or Tennessee, but this should be a pretty good test to see how far the Minutemen have come since Puerto Rico.

Saint Joseph’s at Creighton, Saturday, 3 p.m. — The Hawks figure to have their hands full with Doug McDermott, but it’s an opportunity for coach Phil Martelli’s club to make a statement nationally.

NEW NICKNAME PLEASE — College sports is littered with an overabundance of Wildcats, Tigers and Eagles and too few original nicknames that reflect the school or its region. Throughout the 2012-13 season, this space will point out schools in need of better representation and offer better choices.

There are no Tigers in Memphis or Tennessee or living in the wild anywhere else in the United States. Memphis’ nickname comes from students yelling “We fight like tigers” at the end of a football game in 1914. Not exactly unbreakable tradition. Memphis is one of 11 Division I schools that use Tigers as a mascot and it can do better.

Have a little fun. The city of Memphis is the longtime home and final resting place of Elvis Presley. The school ought to be the Hound Dogs or the Kings. Think of the potential for fight songs and other traditions to go with it.

ON THE ROAD TO — Indiana vs. Duke for the right to cut the nets down.

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Follow UMass coverage on Twitter at twitter.com/GazetteUMass. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.

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