The penultimate weekend of the college basketball season is upon us, and only eight teams are still in the running for the NCAA title. Here’s what you need to know as we trim the Elite Eight to the Final Four on Saturday and Sunday.
SOUTH REGION FINAL:
No. 11 Dayton vs. No. 1 Florida in Memphis — Saturday, 6:09 p.m. TBS
The last time the tournament’s top-seeded Gators lost was December. The team to beat them? Connecticut, which could meet Billy Donovan and Co. in the Final Four if the boys from Gainesville can extend their win streak to 30 against Dayton on Saturday.
So far, the Gators’ road hasn’t been easy, but Florida’s made it look like it: first Albany then Pitt then UCLA all fell by double-digits, Donovan’s squad dismissing opponents with efficiency and contributions from all its talented parts. There’s Casey Prather in the back court and Patric Young down low and Scottie Wilbeken from deep and Dorian Finney-Smith and Michael Frazier and Chris Walker … the list goes on and on. The sum of the parts is a 29-game win streak the Gators hope will grow to 32.
The Cinderella Flyers broke the hearts of perfect-bracket hopefuls with a win over strong No. 6 seed Ohio State in the first round, then took out Syracuse, then Stanford.
But with 35-year-old coach Archie Miller matching his brother’s every 2014 tournament move (Sean coaches Arizona), a strong bench (12 Flyers played and 11 scored in the win over Stanford) and a crowd of supporters who have made Memphis feel like home, the Flyers are just the eighth No. 11 seed to reach the Elite Eight in the NCAA’s 35 years of seeding. The rarity of their achievement notwithstanding, the Flyers aren’t total Elite Eight rookies: Dayton made it this far as recently as … 30 years ago, in 1984.
EAST REGION FINAL:
No. 7 U-Conn. vs. No. 4 Michigan State, New York — Sunday, 2:20 pm, CBS
U-Conn.: The Huskies are in familiar territory at Madison Square Garden, the setting for so many of the program’s most memorable moments, and look to return to the Elite Eight for the 11th time in school history, first since their 2011 national championship season.
They’ve done it thanks in large part to consistent brilliance of AAC player of the year Shabazz Napier, and did it Saturday thanks to a second-half surge from DeAndre Daniels, who dropped 19 of his 27 points in the second half as Iowa State rallied against the seventh-seeded Huskies. Despite the Huskies’ prohibition from the 2013 NCAA tournament, experience has been a crucial component of this year’s redemption: U-Conn. hit 13 of its 14 free throws in the final five minutes. They’re 48 of 53 from the line overall so far this tournament, numbers they’ll have to keep up if they hope to stave off Michigan State on Sunday.
Michigan State: Tom Izzo led his Spartans over higher-seeded Virginia in a thriller Friday night. Quietly but methodically, the Spartans charged through their half of the East Region bracket, beating Delaware and Harvard as tuneups for the Cavaliers.
The Spartans have fallen in the Elite Eight for two straight seasons, and last faced U-Conn. in the 2009 national semifinals on their way to a national championship. Michigan State matches the Huskies’ depth of experience, featuring a mix of seniors like Adreian Payne and Keith Appling and junior Branden Dawson, and of course the tournament-ready mind of Izzo. The East Region final may be the only one without a top-two seed, but features a matchup of battle-tested squads with all the tools to finish on top next week.
WEST REGION FINAL:
No. 2 Wisconsin vs. No. 1 Arizona, Anaheim — Saturday, 8:49 p.m. TBS
Wisconsin: In one way, history is on the Badgers’ side heading into the 46th Elite Eight matchup between the No. 1 and No. 2 seed in a region. The lower seeds have won 23 of those games and lost 22, meaning picking the Badgers as three-point underdogs may not be the worst choice you’d make in an attempt to redeem your broken bracket.
The Badgers’ road to the West Region final began smoothly, with a 40-point win over American. It nearly ended against Oregon, who opened up a 14-point lead on the Badgers at one point in the Round of 32, but Bo Ryan engineered an emphatic second-half comeback. Then, Wisconsin provided a downright impressive performance, tearing up Baylor to reach the region final. But Wisconsin will have to buck another historical trend if they’re to keep another going: the Badgers have never beaten a top 4 seed under Bo Ryan (0-6), and are 1-7 as the lower-seeded team in his tenure.
Arizona: This spot in the West Region final was supposed to belong to Arizona all along, and the Wildcats left little doubt throughout the early rounds that they’d eventually occupy it. Wins over Weber State and Gonzaga came rather easily, and when San Diego State provided more of a challenge Thursday, Naismith finalist Nick Johnson lifted the Wildcats. Johnson cast away memories of 10 straight missed shots early to turn in 15 points in the game’s final three minutes, propelling Arizona to a six-point win and into the Elite Eight.
In the region final, the Wildcats’ relentless rebounding and strong defense will be tested by the Badgers, who have shot their way over opponents throughout the tournament. Arizona boasts the nation’s fifth-best scoring defense, and will likely key on Badger big Frank Kaminsky, who’s been a consistent threat inside on both ends of the floor throughout the tournament.
MIDWEST REGION FINAL:
No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 8 Kentucky, Indianapolis — Sunday, 5:20 pm, CBS
Michigan: The Wolverines’ path to the region final was supposed to go through Duke, but Tennessee provided just as much of a challenge with a furious late rally from 15 points down that forced Michigan to squeak away gratefully with a two-point win. The Volunteers were Michigan’s third tournament victim, going the way of Wofford and Texas before them.
A national finalist last season, Michigan’s trying to snipe its way back to a second-straight Final Four with the three-pointer. Lots and lots of three-pointers. The Wolverines hit 14 deep balls against Texas, then dropped seven in Friday night’s first half, finishing with 11 overall. Fittingly, two guards with three-letter names are the main perpetrators from deep, and Zak Irvin and Nik Stauskas didn’t disappoint Friday, hitting three threes apiece.
Kentucky: All season, the college basketball watched and wondered about Kentucky. The Wildcats were up and down — but too talented to count out — and loomed as a threat whose legitimacy was yet to be seen. Late Saturday night, John Calipari’s squad confirmed what each round of the tournament had strongly suggested: the Wildcats are growing up. With an all-freshmen starting five that more than makes up for in talent what it lacks in experience, the Wildcats have transformed from youthful potential disruption to classic Kentucky title contender.
First, there was a relatively comfortable win over a tough Kansas State team, a quiet statement of tournament readiness. Then there was the epic win over No. 1 seed Wichita State, the fantastic finish against a veteran team more used to close games with high-stakes than the Harrison brothers or Julius Randle. By Saturday night, there was no doubt: the Wildcats rallied from seven points down with four minutes to go, tournament rookies overtaking the defending National Champions and holding them off down the stretch. Seeding-wise, they’re not the favorites against the Wolverines, but you may be hard pressed to find many outside Ann Arbor willing to bet against Calipari’s kids now.
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