Big-time programs battling for Final Four berths
Saturday night's games will decide half the Final Four, and the big boys have pushed the Cinderellas off the dance floor.
Arizona and Wisconsin are back in Southern California fighting for a Final Four berth again. In Cleveland, Notre Dame takes on the biggest heavyweight college basketball has seen in decades, and Kentucky is favored to keep its undefeated season going and deny the Fighting Irish their first Final Four trip since 1978.
The first game features Pac-12 champs (regular season and tournament) against the Big Ten champs (regular season and tournament) in a rematch of last year's West Regional final. In that game, second-seeded Wisconsin beat top-seeded Arizona 64-63 in overtime. This year the seedings are reversed, and plenty of players are back from both teams.
''They made one more play in overtime than we did,'' Arizona's Gabe York said Friday. ''That was a crazy, crazy scenario. There were only 2 seconds left and it took them about 15 minutes for those 2 seconds to end.''
''Obviously, it's icing on the cake that we get to play Wisconsin in the Elite Eight and have a chance to go to the Final Four,'' York said. ''We're extra amped.''
The late game features the tournament champs of the ACC - the best conference in this tournament - against the undefeated SEC champion.
The talk of the tournament has been dominated by Kentucky's run at a perfect season. The Wildcats (37-0) dismantled West Virginia in the Midwest Regional semifinal. Notre Dame (32-5) was pretty impressive itself in a Sweet 16 win over Wichita State.
The Fighting Irish are double-digit underdogs, but they may have some extra fans as they try to end Kentucky's bid at the first perfect season since Indiana in 1976.
''We are America's team tomorrow,'' coach Mike Brey said Friday. ''And we love it, we certainly will take all that support. We've got a monumental challenge on our hands.''
Notre Dame may be America's team, but Kentucky fans will fill up the arena as the Big Blue Nation usually does.
Kentucky has faced different tactics from each opponent in this tournament and the Irish will keep that going.
''We have a lot of confidence,'' guard Jerian Grant said. ''We feel they haven't played an offensive team like us. Just go out there and play our game I think we'll be able to get a win.''
CONFERENCE CALL: The Atlantic Coast Conference has three teams still playing - Duke, Notre Dame and Louisville - and with each in a different region there is a chance it could match the Big East's record of three teams in one Final Four in 1985. The ACC's record of 14-3 through the regional semifinals is the only one over .750 by any conference.
IMPRESSIVE GROUP: The eight coaches working the sidelines this weekend can be broken into three groups.
There are those that already have at least one national championship: John Calipari, Kentucky, Mike Krzyzewski, Duke, Tom Izzo, Michigan State, and Rick Pitino, Louisville.
Then there are those still looking for their first Final Four appearance: Sean Miller, Arizona, Mark Few. Gonzaga, and Mike Brey, Notre Dame.
The third group is Wisconsin's Bo Ryan, who took the Badgers to the Final Four last season for the first time and is still looking for his first Division I championship. He coached Wisconsin-Platteville to four Division III titles in the 1990s.
SUNDAY SETUP: The other half of the Final Four matchups will be decided Sunday when top-seeded Duke and No. 2 Gonzaga meet for the South Regional title and fourth-seeded Louisville faces No. 7 Michigan State for the East Regional championship.
Duke will play in its 20th regional final, the 14th under Mike Krzyzewski, the most by any active coach. The Blue Devils' last Final Four appearance was in 2010, when they also went through Houston on the way to their fourth national title.
Krzyzewski has a record 85 NCAA Tournament wins, 20 more than Dean Smith and Roy Williams.