East Region Reset: Simply put, Kentucky is better than the rest
A year from now,
Both teams dominated the opposition in their first two NCAA tournament games -- but you pretty much expected that from Kentucky. The Big Red, on the other hand, you had to see to believe. This team isn't some fluky mid-major. Cornell posted the highest shooting percentage (61.1) of any Wisconsin opponent in nine years and outrebounded the fourth-seeded Badgers 27-20.
Still, the Big Red be considerable underdogs against the Wildcats, and understandably so. Their first two opponents were slow-down defensive teams with limited options offensively. Wall and Cousins are two of the most athletic scorers in the country. Cornell is more experienced (four senior starters), but the Wildcats' reliance on freshmen hasn't slowed them down to date.
But what makes the matchup so intriguing, so historic (Cornell is the first Ivy school to make it this far since 1979), is that the two teams represent such diametrically opposite facets of the college sports environment.
Is it still possible in 2010 for an old-fashioned team of "student athletes" to compete with a more standard team of "athletes who moonlight as students?" We're about to find out.
Numerous basketball experts (
Now that prohibitive pre-tourney favorite Kansas is out, the 34-2 Wildcats carry that unofficial title. And after dominant performances against East Tennessee State (100-71) and Wake Forest (90-60), much of the chatter regarding Kentucky seems to have turned from nervousness about their youth to adulation over their talent. As the
But lest we get carried away, remember that it was only two games ago that the Wildcats needed overtime to survive NIT team Mississippi State and have been notoriously up-and-down. They may well achieve greatness, but any of their upcoming foes could bring an end to the hype.
There's no mistaking the identity of West Virginia's go-to guy, as evidenced yet again in the Mountaineers' second-round win over Missouri. Butler, who's surpassed the 20-point mark in four of his team's past seven games, sprung for 28 and killed the Tigers both inside (hitting 12-of-13 free throws) and outside (4-of-9 from behind the arc). If needed, he'll put his team on his back, especially in the closing minutes.
If the higher seeds both advance, this has all the makings of an epic Elite Eight matchup. The teams finished the regular season ranked No. 2 and No. 6 respectively in the AP poll. The Wildcats' star power is well documented, but WVU's Butler has shown over the past two weeks he belongs on any All-America team himself. And the contrast in styles will be intensified.
The Big Red won't have to travel far -- their campus is only about an hour from Syracuse -- but that doesn't necessarily mean the crowd will be in its favor. Kentucky fans caravan like no other school's, and while only the most crazily optimistic Cornell fans saw this Sweet 16 trip coming, Wildcats followers likely bought up their tickets as soon as the bracket was announced.
That's Washington's three-point shooting percentage over its current nine-game winning streak, up from 31.4 percent during its first 26 games and good enough to rank in the top 10 nationally had the Huskies shot at that level all year.
No deep explanation necessary -- the Wildcats are better than everyone else. West Virginia's defense won't make life easy for the 'Cats if the two meet, but Wall, an underrated defender, could cause more problems for the Mountaineers' ball-handlers than they will for him.