and Tom Izzo face an unlikely Elite Eight opponent in UConn. (Heinz Kluetmeier/SI)
This is the time when the calendar starts to turn over. Winter typically has one blast left, but for the most part the days are longer and warmer bit by bit. You'll see people you haven't seen in a few months suddenly reappear, going to the gym or talking about a new favorite brunch spot. It's nice in a vacuum, but what that also means is the NCAA tournament is soon drawing to a close.
Baseball is about to get going, the Masters will welcome you to spring with a calm and soothing voice, but many of the players we've grown to know and appreciate are going to be gone in a snap. Half the Final Four will be joined by two more teams, and this wild ride we've all been on will seem like a mirage. If Sunday's games keep pace with how the rest of the tournament has played out, we should be in for another memorable pair of games.
East Region: No. 7 Connecticut (29-8, 12-6 in AAC) vs. No. 4 Michigan State (29-8, 12-6 in Big Ten)
How to watch: 2:20 p.m. ET, CBS
What to watch for: After the brackets were announced, it seemed like the Michigan State title bandwagon was crammed tighter than a New York train in rush hour. People were falling over each other to pencil in the Spartans as their national champion. That's the kind of power Tom Izzo has as a coach. With all the injuries and the rotating lineups, MSU struggled to really find its footing during the regular season. The Spartans had a good year, but not the dominating run many expected in Keith Appling and Adreian Payne's senior campaigns.
If Michigan State could just get healthy? That was what everyone waiting for. Injuries hurt seeding and hurt the chances for a team playing as tightly and cohesively as, for instance, Florida has been down the stretch. But they also allow you to understand what else you have. If others can step up and a coach can get creative while still keeping his guys focused, you start to see the identity of your team shift somewhat. MSU isn't the team it was November or February; it's a whole different entity.
UConn has to face this nebulous, well-coached bunch. And luckily for the Huskies, they don't really resemble the team that made its way into the tournament either. Connecticut was defined by one player for much of the year: Shabazz Napier. There are worse players to craft your identity on, but few had the Huskies as a potential Final Four contender in a bracket along with Villanova, UNC, Iowa State, Michigan State and Virginia. They were a bit of an afterthought. But March is funny sometimes. Guys finally see the light come on and grow into clothes that looked comically big for them a few months earlier.
That's been the case with DeAndre Daniels. The junior was supposed to have a breakout year. He was too athletically gifted not to. That said, his inconsistency kept UConn from being an elite team all year. If the Huskies could just get him to realize his potential, they'd be a much more complete team. Daniels, not Napier, was the big story against the Cyclones as he hit a bunch of shots in the second half to help Connecticut move into the Elite Eight. Against the Spartans, Daniels and junior Ryan Boatright have to continue helping Napier shoulder the load or they run the risk of crumbling.
Midwest Region: No. 8 Kentucky (27-10, 12-6 in SEC) vs. No. 2 Michigan (28-8, 15-3 in Big Ten)
How to watch: 5:05 p.m. ET, CBS
What to watch for: The shirts were printed at the beginning of the year, and the articles were written. Kentucky with its all-star recruiting class was supposed to be here. It was expected to do big things. Basketball isn't as simple as simulating a season and watching young talent get better and better. In real life players don't always come together or click into place at will. It takes time. While John Calipari and the rest of Big Blue Nation probably would've liked the Wildcats to figure it out a little sooner – an eight seed isn't ideal when heading into the bracket – no one can argue with the results over the past few games.
The Wildcats need to give the same sort of effort they did in the second half against Louisville if they have any hopes of toppling Michigan. The Wolverines had big hopes as well headed into the year, coming off a National Championship appearance. Mitch McGary's injury threw the team's balance into upheaval and the Wolverines took their lumps early in the year, but they were still able to figure it out in time. After starting the year 6-4, they finished the regular season 17-3. Nik Stauskas became a star, Glenn Robinson III showed off what made him such a tantalizing prospect, and Caris LeVert matured.
HAMILTON: Wolverines, Wildcats show strides in coaching and maturity
The Wolverines have been firing on another level throughout the tournament, hitting shots in bunches and forcing teams to play catchup. Kentucky can't afford to take basically the entire first half to get comfortable like it did against the Cardinals on Friday. The Wildcats need to be sharp early or Michigan could push right past them.
Michigan has the personnel to match up well at most positions against Kentucky, but the Wildcats have a big advantage in Julius Randle
. He attacks the glass like few freshmen in recent memory and creates his own touches even when the perimeter players like the Harrison twins and James Young
dominate possessions. The Wolverines don't really have an answer for him. Regardless this should be another close one; KenPom has this one as dead heat, with both teams predicted to have a 50 percent chance at winning.