Opening Salvo: Well, the Elite Eight is set and it's a good mix of teams. We lost a little marquee value with Ohio State getting knocked off on Friday, but there are some really good stories, starting with Tennessee and Butler. Kansas State and Baylor have also enjoyed special seasons. And of course you've got the Blue Bloods: Duke and Kentucky. I think plenty of people would be extremely excited about a Duke and Kentucky Final Four game, but both of those teams are a very long ways away from getting there.
It's a fun bunch of teams, and I'm excited to see a couple teams punch their ticket to Indy on Saturday.
KENTUCKY VS. WEST VIRGINIA
Both games on Saturday are intriguing, but there's no question Kentucky-West Virginia is the marquee game of the day. Like I said yesterday, you can make the case that those are the two best teams in the tournament. Just grab a bowl of popcorn, sit back and enjoy a spectacular showdown. Kentucky clearly has more raw talent than West Virginia, but I'm not sure UK is the better team. We're going to find out.
Here are three keys to the East Regional final:
1. DeMarcus Cousins. Kentucky will have the two best players on the floor, and I rank Cousins No. 1, and John Wall No. 2. Some people may disagree, but I think that Cousins is Kentucky's best player. He's the biggest difference-maker on that team. Wall is undoubtedly a fantastic player, but Cousins is the one guy that nobody in this tournament really has an answer for. Now, there are two questions when it comes to Cousins. 1) Is his back OK?; and 2) Does he stay out of foul trouble?
2. West Virginia must limit Kentucky's transition opportunities. That includes limiting turnovers and not allowing the Wildcats to get run-outs off long rebounds. Kentucky is just so devastating in the transition game. What Kentucky did to Cornell to end the first half on Thursday was quite impressive. The Big Red really, really had trouble running their stuff, and gave the Wildcats way too many transition opportunities -- which Kentucky capitalized on to fuel a 30-6 run.
3. Kentucky must take care of the ball. Many people say the biggest Achilles' heel for Kentucky is outside shooting, but I think it's turnovers. Kentucky's a very young team, and they predictably suffer from lapses in decision-making. The Wildcats just cannot shoot themselves in the foot too many times against a tough West Virginia squad.
KANSAS STATE VS. BUTLER
I don't want to diminish Butler, because I really do admire the Bulldogs and I do think they are a good team, but I still have to question them a bit. Butler rolled through a pretty mediocre league, beat UTEP and Murray State to get to the Sweet 16, and then beat Syracuse without its starting center. So there's still a part of me that wonders how good Butler really is. But we will find out on Saturday. Maybe the Bulldogs will surprise me. Kansas State is a tall order, though -- Frank Martin's kids are so tough, and those guards are absolutely phenomenal.
Here are three keys to the West Regional final:
1. Can the Wildcats refill their tank? Kansas State played in a late game Thursday night, double-overtime, and guys played a lot of minutes. It's not just the physical recovery, but also the mental aspect.
2. The pace of the game. The biggest strategic battle will be the tempo: Butler looks to keep it slow and keep the game in the 60s, while Kansas State wants to run and get into a shootout. The Bulldogs certainly don't want to get into a track meet; that would give Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente a lot of momentum.
3. Butler must keep Matt Howard out of foul trouble. This is a huge key in every Butler game. Howard is really the Bulldogs' only inside option, while Kansas State can rotate a lot of guys through the post. If Curtis Kelly gets into foul trouble, the Wildcats can bring in Jamar Samuels, Wally Judge or Dominique Sutton -- they're pretty well-equipped up front.
Most Impressive Team: Baylor. I knew that St. Mary's would have a very tough time with the Bears, but I can't say that I expected them to be down 46-17 at the half. Baylor's first half was probably the best 20-minute period any team has played in this tournament. To be honest, I have a hard time envisioning Duke beating Baylor. The Bears match up very favorably with the Blue Devils. Baylor is just so imposing on the interior, so big and athletic. Duke is really going to have to shoot the ball well to come out of that game on top.
Most Disappointing Team: Ohio State. It was just a little too much of the Evan Turner show. He had 23 shots, and that is just not what the Buckeyes do -- they are a very well-balanced offensive team. And it just looked like Ohio State's thin rotation finally caught up with the Buckeyes. Bruce Pearl was very candid after they game, saying that it was Tennessee's 10 versus Ohio State's six.
Most Surprising Development: Tennessee getting into the Elite Eight. The Volunteers just played a very smart game. They had a great game plan and played to their strengths. Tennessee really cranked up its defense in the second half, holding Ohio State to 32 percent shooting from the field. Quite a contrast to the Buckeyes' 56 percent clip in the first half. After all of the adversity Tennessee has gone through this year, it's very impressive for them to be among the final eight teams playing. It just speaks to the fact that they stuck together through it all.
Player of the Day: Wayne Chism, Tennessee. The Volunteers knew where their horse was, and they fed him. On the set at CBS, I was talking to Greg Anthony about whether he thinks Chism will be able to be a steady pro player, and Greg thinks that he has a chance. He can shoot threes, he's always been a great rebounder and he just has a fabulous motor. I think he's going to have a nice NBA career. Not an All-Star, but a steady contributor.
Memorable Moment: J.P. Prince blocking Turner to seal the deal for the Volunteers. What a great no-call by the referee, as it was indeed a clean block. A lot of referees in that situation would anticipate a foul. We rip the refs when they get it wrong, so have to point out when they get it right. That was a great way for the game to end, on a stellar defensive play that was well-officiated.
Sign Of A True Contender: When you lose your starting point guard and best player and you still beat a quality team to get into the Elite Eight. Hats off to Michigan State for that. If Tom Izzo takes this team to a Final Four ... wow.