CLEVELAND -- We would say we don't have any words to describe the Kentucky Wildcats' immediately legendary 68-66 win Saturday over the Notre Dame Fighing Irish in the Midwest Regional final, and we would be right, but let's give it a shot anyway. Five observations:
- You just watched a bonafide NCAA tournament classic: On one side, a 37-0 steamroller coming off an epochal domination of its Sweet 16 opponent; on the other, a team that lost 17 games a season ago but blitzed the ACC with great offense that maximized its strengths and minimized its weaknesses, and that entered Saturday night genuinely believing -- rightfully so -- that it was absolutely capable of beating the unbeatable. It was only the final seconds that proved otherwise, when Andrew Harrison's two free throws, and Willie Cauley-Stein's perfect hounding of guard Jerian Grant's last-ditch attempt, gave the Wildcats their decisive two-point advantage.
- Irish executed about as well as possible in first half: They weren't perfect, of course -- there were six turnovers, some of them sloppy, and Notre Dame shot just 1-of-5 from 3. If, before the game, you had told Mike Brey that both of those things would be true at halftime, but that his team would be tied 31-31, he'd have probably laughed. But the Irish did everything else right. They spread Kentucky's defense and attacked the gaps; Zach Auguste crashed the offensive glass; the Irish used their trademark back-cut out of penetration to find easy buckets against a disconnected Kentucky defense; and Pat Connaughton did yeoman's work keeping the much taller UK frontcourt off the glass. Notre Dame went 12-of-22 from 2-point range in the first half while holding the Wildcats to 10-of-27 shooting -- the combined product of just plain bad shooting and intelligent defense. There were 13 lead changes in the first half, and the game -- a real, genuine, oh-man-UK-might-actually-lose-this game -- was on.
- Kentucky's second-half strategy simple: Give ball to Towns: Karl-Anthony Towns is unstoppable no matter who's attempting the stopping, but his brutish size was especially unguardable for that undersized ND interior. John Calipari clearly mentioned as much to his team at halftime. The start of the second half was a parade of Towns touches on the block. Four of UK's first six second-half buckets came from Towns, and usually in totally straightforward fashion. When Devin Booker hit a 3 early in the second to put UK up by five, it looked like that inevitable Wildcats run might bury the Irish then and there. But ND kept finding buckets on the other end, too; Towns was whistled for his third foul with 11:15 to play; and the game stayed on. When he returned, with just over seven minutes to play, he immediately got another easy bucket over August -- and then, a possession later, having been switched on Connaughton, got another. The Irish began doubling Towns on the block. The first time, it worked, leading to a steal and a trailing Steve Vasturia 3. The second time, it gave Tyler Ulis an open corner 3. But then, with 5:22 to play, Auguste caught at the elbow and finished a layup through contact, Towns' fourth foul. He returned with less than five minutes left and immediately got a bucket and foul to give Auguste his fourth, cutting Notre Dame's lead from four points to just one. Calipari wisely subbed Towns in and out from there, and there was scarcely a big Kentucky basket that didn't directly involve Towns the rest of the way.
- Auguste, Connaughton, Vasturia play game of their lives: Auguste attacked the rim with fearless gusto, feasting on Notre Dame's masterfully angled cuts and offensive rebounds left when the Wildcats' help side went chasing blocks. He finished with 20 points, all of them in the paint, an utter rarity against the best 2-point defense in recent college basketball history. Connaughton was a man possessed on the glass, fending off the comically larger Willie Cauley-Stein to the tune of nine rebounds. Vasturia, who spent much of March emerging as yet another offensive threat in Notre Dame's already considerable arsenal, was as good as he's ever been -- his back-to-back buckets kept Notre Dame in the lead midway through the second half. If Auguste was the MVP of Notre Dame's effort, it was only barely -- everyone, top-to-bottom, contributed some of the best basketball of their careers. Consider this: Until its shot-clock violation in the final minute, Notre Dame went 28:44 without a turnover.
- And it still wasn't enough: Such is the greatness of Kentucky, the formation of which is still very much in progress. Several teams have tested UK this season and come up short, because not only is Kentucky great for most of pretty much every game it plays, it always finds another gear, another stratosphere, when everything is on the line. It was Saturday night; the Wildcats were on the ropes; Notre Dame touched something close to perfection. And Kentucky is still unbeaten, still chasing immortality, and relocating the final leg of that chase to Indianapolis, with a second-straight trip to Final Four. Crazy.
HOUSTON -- Gonzaga Bulldogs coach Mark Few received all the affirmation he needed from his team before New Year's Day.
He saw it in the way the Bulldogs fought the Texas Longhorns, with the talented roster that made them a preseason Final Four contender, during a secret scrimmage in October. He saw it again in the locker room when the Bulldogs knew they let one get away in a three-point overtime loss at the Arizona Wildcats.
So as Gonzaga, on the verge of making program history if it advances to the Final Four, faces college basketball royalty in the Elite Eight on Sunday, Few knows his team can handle the magnitude of both the game and the college basketball brand that is the Duke Blue Devils.
"When we walked out of that building [at Arizona] and we were in the locker room and everybody was so visibly upset with losing that game," Few said. "It was a game we felt we probably should have won, knowing how good Arizona is and how well coached they are. I think that was probably a pretty big moment, like, 'Hey, we can do this.'"
Don’t think this is getting old for Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski. Even though it’s the 14th time he’s led the Blue Devils into the Elite Eight -- the most appearances among current coaches -- according to Duke standards, this group hasn’t won anything.
The Blue Devils didn’t win the ACC regular-season title. They didn’t win the league’s tournament championship. The lone scholarship senior, Quinn Cook, said legacies at Duke are built on what banners you helped raise, and he’s yet to be a part of putting one up.
That’s why he said Duke will be just as hungry as Gonzaga on Sunday.
"We’re not just satisfied with getting to the [Elite] Eight," Cook said. "… Myself, Amile [Jefferson] and Marshall [Plumlee], we’ve been to the Eight [in 2013] and we’ve seen Louisville celebrate and how joyous that was and how hurt we were. We’re locked in, we’re focused and we’ve got our hands full with Gonzaga. They’ve been a top-five team all year."
Key to the game
The coaches downplayed it. The players did, too. But the reality is no team has truly figured out how to shoot from deep in NRG Stadium. According to Ken Pomeroy, 30 teams playing 30 games at the venue since 2002 combined to shoot just 32 percent from 3-point range.
That includes Gonzaga’s 3-of-19 outing and Duke’s 3-of-9 performance on Friday. (It should be noted that Justise Winslow was the only player to make a 3-pointer for Duke. He went 3-for-4, but the Houston native had an added incentive of playing in front of what he estimated was about 100 of his family and friends.)
The spacious backdrop in the stadium has turned otherwise sharpshooters into rock-throwers.
"I’m not convinced that that’s the case," Few said. "… We’ve had off-nights, we’ve had off-practices."
Few said eventually, poor shooting always corrects itself. Butler’s 18 percent shooting night from the 2011 national title game played here was brought up and Few replied, "maybe those guys weren’t very good shooters; I don’t know."
Wiltjer and Pangos also shrugged their first game off and are looking forward to trying again.
"I haven’t missed a shot yet as of tomorrow, so it’s a new day," Pangos said.
Krzyzewski said he had no indication that his team would shoot poorly through the open practice and shootaround. He believed both teams would have a better outing on Sunday, having now held two practices in the stadium and playing a game.
"I would think both teams will shoot well because they’re accustomed to their environment -- not just the space but the magnitude," he said.
There’s a reason why Duke and Gonzaga rank third and fourth, respectively, in adjusted offense, according to KenPom.com. They knock shots down. But if the NRG effect takes over, both teams will again have to find another way to win.
Player to watch
For Gonzaga, it’s not just center Przemek Karnowski, who ranks fifth nationally in points per post-up play allowed among the 44 players who have defended at least 90 plays. That’s tops among NCAA tournament participants, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Keep an eye on his replacement, Domantas Sabonis, too. It’s their turn to try to handle Duke center Jahlil Okafor in the post. Utah effectively used double-teams to keep Okafor from being a factor on offense on Friday. His six points tied a season low.
The Zags didn’t reveal whether or not they will double-team or play him straight up, but they believe Okafor is the key to the Blue Devils’ offense.
"He’s very strong, mobile and agile," Karnowski said. "… All the balls seem to go through him through the post."
Karnowski has the kind of wide-body frame and bulk that has made Okafor labor this season. He's had to work hard against Georgia Tech’s Demarco Cox and Charles Mitchell, North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks and Joel James, and NC State’s Abdul-Malik Abu and Beejay Anya.
Okafor got the better of those individual matchups, but he was visibly fatigued against those big bodies. Karnowski is more than just a big body, though -- he’s a legitimate 7-footer, so he’ll be able to more evenly match up with Okafor. He’s coming off his best performance of the tournament with 18 points against UCLA.
Sabonis, the son of legendary Lithuanian big man Arvydas Sabonis, can make Okafor work on the defensive end. Sabonis had 10 of his 12 points against UCLA in the second half. He’s also the Zags' leading rebounder, and that includes on the offensive boards.
Okafor said playing through the ACC schedule has pretty much prepared him for everything he’s faced in the NCAA tournament.
"We’ve played big teams with North Carolina -- Florida State had 7-footers they rotated in and out, so we have seen some really big teams this year," Okafor said. "I think Gonzaga is one of the better teams we’ve played all year, obviously. There’s going to be a lot of challenges though, not just with their big men."
Here are five observations from that game:
- Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s impact: In the first half, it was clear early that Arizona would have trouble -- again -- with Frank Kaminsky. His mobility, his range, his size. The Wildcats didn’t have a great answer for him last year, and they faced the same dilemma in Saturday’s game. But Sean Miller’s move to put Hollis-Jefferson on Kaminsky in the first half stalled the Wooden Award favorite for stretches. Kaminsky still played well. But Hollis-Jefferson’s harassment was the best option for the Wildcats, especially after Brandon Ashley picked up two fouls in the first 81 seconds, and it’s also how Arizona kept the game close (Arizona had a 33-30 lead at halftime). By halftime, Hollis-Jefferson had eight points and five rebounds.
Frank Kaminsky being Frank Kaminsky: But Frank the Tank is real. No matter what the Wildcats threw at him, he was ready. He drove by Kaleb Tarczewski without much trouble. Ashley’s two fouls limited him to just seven minutes of action in the first half. By the end of the first half, every Arizona starter not named T.J. McConnell had picked up two fouls. Kaminsky's relentlessness did that. Kaminsky had 13 points (5-for-13) and five rebounds by halftime. Eight minutes into the second half, he’d upped that tally to 21 points. He finished with 29 points, his same total from last year’s Elite Eight game.
- The atmosphere: There was a lot of red in the building. And most of it was Arizona red. The school, just seven hours from Los Angeles, had the bulk of the representation in the arena. You could hear it in the first half as the Wildcats emerged from an early deficit. There were times when Staples Center felt like McKale Center No. 2. Wisconsin fans were strong, too. The Badgers were in the building. But the Arizona fans flooded downtown Los Angeles and the Staples Center. Wisconsin had to fight through that.
- The 3-Ball: Throughout most of the night, Wisconsin was just the better team. Kaminsky excelled. The Badgers were smart, patient and disciplined. And they were hot from the perimeter. With 6:19 to go in the game, the Badgers were 9-for-14 from the 3-point line, while the Wildcats were just 1-for-4 at the same juncture. The Badgers were shooting 64 percent from beyond the arc and 48 percent inside it. It’s that offensive balance that helped Bo Ryan’s squad separate from Arizona in the second half. Sam Dekker’s 3-pointer in the final two minutes was just sick and clutch.
- Another thriller: The first half lived up to the hype. The Wildcats and Badgers were battling for every possession. It appeared that we’d have another great game, comparable to the 64-63 overtime game that Wisconsin won over Arizona in last year’s Elite Eight. But the Badgers seemed to ruin that ending with a dominant run midway through the second half (12-3) that changed everything. Josh Gasser’s layup with 8:38 to go put Wisconsin up 62-51. The first half was thrilling. The second half was just proof that Wisconsin is a great team that deserves this spot in the Final Four. That’s how it appeared. And then, a brief Arizona rally that closed the gap to five points gave Wildcats fans hope. But … Dekker (27 points). Back to the Final Four for Wisconsin.
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They prefer "deserved" and "earned."
But they did.
There is no faith like blind faith, the kind that makes you look past the odds -- beyond even the reality -- and see a path no one else does. Michigan State had it, staring at a 15-8 record after a home loss to Illinois; Louisville never relinquished it through a season punctuated with as many valleys as hills.
"It was the minor things we needed to clean up," Michigan State guard Travis Trice said. "We have faith in each other, and we have faith in the coaching staff. We've never lost that since the beginning of the season, even with all the ups and downs. We knew it was just a matter of a couple of minor things we needed to correct, and we could become a great team."
The Spartans' motivation is a year old, born in a locker room at Madison Square Garden last season. There, the current players watched Adreian Payne and Keith Appling become the first senior class under Tom Izzo to not make the Final Four, losing to Connecticut in the Elite Eight.
"Those guys were crushed, seeing their faces and how they reacted -- it was big for us," Trice said.
As for Louisville, its motivation came from an unlikely source. Richard Pitino, former assistant and son of head coach Rick Pitino, watched the Cardinals practice after they beat UC Irvine in the first round.
He then gave them a chewing out that would make papa proud.
"He told us it was the worst practice he'd ever seen," Terry Rozier said. "Nobody was leading, talking. He really challenged us and told us if we were satisfied with that effort, we'd be going home."
Duly inspired and challenged, the two teams now are one game away from Indianapolis, something no one saw coming … except the Spartans and the Cards.
Key to the game: Presumably Louisville hasn't thrown its game plan for facing NC State away, because really this is the same thing all over again.
"Limit them to one tough shot. Get our hands up on the 3-point line and rebound as a team," Montrezl Harrell said.
The Cards did all of that against the Wolfpack, which is why they won. Doing it against the Spartans may be tougher.
Michigan State's grinder reputation belies the reality that this team loves to run. With three solid shooters in Trice, Denzel Valentine and Bryn Forbes, the Spartans love nothing more than to launch dagger 3s in transition; Valentine offered up the killer against Oklahoma on Friday night.
Louisville doesn't have three solid shooters. The Cardinals frankly don't have one, so they'll need to be selective in their fast-break pushes and more content to sit back in a half-court offense.
The good news: That offense is, in Rick Pitino's estimation, "the best it's been all season."
That plan worked well against the Wolfpack. Louisville all but eliminated Cat Barber, slowing the game to a pace where his speed was no longer a factor.
Michigan State has proven it can win just about any way; it went rock fight against Virginia and freewheeling versus Oklahoma, so imposing a will -- if you will -- won't be nearly as easy.
It's not easy to change up the Cards, either. Between their zone defense -- which Izzo called "crazy" -- and efficient, if not spectacular, offense, they have found a way to play their best ball when it matters most.
"We've got our work cut out for us," Izzo said. "But we've had our work cut out for us all year in different ways."
Player to watch: Branden Dawson. Izzo joked on Saturday that when he showed some Louisville video to his team in the wee hours following the Sweet 16 win against Oklahoma, he made sure Harrell was cut from the package.
"I didn't want them to have nightmares," he said. "We had our video guy cut out anything where he was living with his head and feet at the rim."
The job of erasing the bogeyman permanently falls to Dawson. The senior, who gives up two inches and 15 pounds to Harrell, will no doubt have his hands full. Harrell has raised his game -- and his draft stock -- significantly in this tournament, averaging 15.3 points and 5.7 rebounds, not to mention adding a confident sweet-stroking jumper to his repertoire.
It's not that Dawson doesn't have the strength to keep up. He does.
It's just matching Harrell's motor that could be a problem. The senior's game has a tendency to ebb and flow, sometimes dramatically, over a 40-minute period. He can play with intensity and fire, or he can disappear for stretches.
Harrell was asked whether he thought Dawson could match his vigor.
"I haven't seen too many players with the energy that I play," Harrell said. "I don't take any plays off. If he has as much energy as me, it should be a good game. I don't see him running with as much energy as I have."
But Dawson has been strong for the Spartans lately, answering the challenge his own coach threw at him and Trice -- that the seniors would determine Michigan State's fate. He's averaging 11.6 points and more critically, 8.6 rebounds (including 11 against Oklahoma on Friday night) through the Sweet 16.
Dawson didn't play the last time these two teams met in the NCAA tournament, back in 2012. He was sidelined with an injury and forced to watch the game from his dorm room. Former Spartan Draymond Green called Dawson up this weekend to remind him of that.
"He said that if I played in that game, we would have gone to the Final Four," Dawson said. "It was hard, just sitting there, not being able to play. I think, come tomorrow, this will definitely be a man's game. It will be great for me being able to play against these guys for the first time."
Andrew Harrison and Tyler Ulis are both guards who play for the undefeated Kentucky Wildcats. Sure, one is 6-foot-6 and the other is 5-9, but they were born only a little more than a year apart and these days there's no noticeable age difference between the two, as this photo from last month indicates:
But that wasn't always the case. Back in middle school, the two squared off as opponents on the AAU circuit and Ulis, clearly finding the humor in it, tweeted out this photo and included a few laughing emojis:
So if Kentucky's opponents have felt a little bit like David going up against Goliath this season, we at least know there's one Wildcat who knows the feeling quite well.
The Elite Eight is upon us and we've got you fully covered in Los Angeles and Cleveland. Keep this page open starting at 6 p.m. ET as our reporters bring your real-time reaction and analysis from both of Saturday's regional finals.
That's when the world saw his glorious mustache.
It's magnificent. And there is a story behind it.
Moesch, who spoke with reporters Friday during media availability before Saturday's Wisconsin-Arizona Elite Eight matchup, said he hasn't shaved his upper lip since UW lost to Maryland on Feb. 24.
Since that game, the Badgers have won nine in a row.
That's how the lucky 'stache that changed a season was born. Moesch doesn't believe in superstition, but he's also aware of the impact that his facial hair has had on the program.
“I've just had it going and had it going, then we just kept winning, so I had to keep it growing,” he said. “It's not superstitious; it's just routine. 'Routine' is what I would call it. Superstition, we don't really do superstition, but like tradition and getting into a routine. That's what it is. Some people [encourage it]. Some people say, 'Shave that stuff.'”
Moesch has supporters, though. It's so popular that Wisconsin fans have nicknamed it "The Moeschstache."
— Ryan Morey (@rymorey) March 20, 2015
“My family, it's growing on my family,” he said. “My family likes it now. They put on fake mustaches for the games. It's definitely [a factor for this run].”
There are, however, drawbacks. He said food gets stuck in his mustache sometimes. But the mustache is not going anywhere. It's too valuable.
Just 59,204 (0.5 percent) out of 11.57 million Tournament Challenge brackets got all the Elite Eight teams correct. Regarding Friday's results, only 2.1 percent of brackets have Gonzaga, Louisville, Duke and Michigan State reaching the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament.
- 26.1% of brackets have the Louisville Cardinals in the Elite Eight (12.3% have them reaching the Final Four).
- 19.1% of brackets have the Michigan State Spartans in the Elite Eight (9.1% have them reaching the Final Four).
- 5.9% picked the Louisville/Michigan State matchup in the Elite Eight (54.0% of those brackets picked Louisville to win).
- 48.3% of brackets have the Gonzaga Bulldogs in the Elite Eight (21.9% have them reaching the Final Four).
- 82.3% of brackets have the Duke Blue Devils in the Elite Eight (52.3% have them reaching the Final Four).
- 40.7% picked the Gonzaga/Duke matchup in the Elite Eight (60.0% of those brackets picked Duke to win).
Looking ahead to Saturday’s Elite Eight games
- The Wisconsin Badgers-Arizona Wildcats is a very even matchup in terms of bracket advancement, as the Badgers were picked to reach the Final Four in 41.8% of brackets and the Wildcats in 36.2%.
- The Kentucky Wildcats are obviously the biggest favorites to reach the Final Four (77.7% of brackets), while the Notre Dame Fighting Irish were picked to do so in just 9.5%.
President Obama’s bracket
The President won the only game he could have on Friday, Duke’s victory over Utah, and he wound up getting five Elite Eight teams correct. Looking ahead to the Final Four, he still has three teams alive (Kentucky, Arizona, Duke). His bracket currently sits in the 49.9 percentile.
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The seed line -- a seven for Sparty, a three for the Sooners -- will say this was an upset. Anyone who knows Michigan State's history knows better.
Here are five observations from the game:
- Michigan State coach Tom Izzo put this one on his seniors, saying the Spartans would continue to go only as far as Travis Trice and Branden Dawson took them. Count this as a delivery. Trice finished with a game-high 24 points. Dawson had only six, but his 11 boards were every bit as critical.
- Praised for his defensive prowess during the pregame, Denzel Valentine delivered offensively in this one. The junior, who managed just four points against the Virginia Cavaliers in the regional semifinal, finished with 18. More critically, 13 of those came in the second half, when Michigan State turned a four-point deficit into its first lead. He also drained a critical 3 (one of four he made), taking a great outlet from Dawson for a transition bucket that bumped the Spartans' lead to four points, which, in this game, seemed huge.
- Buddy Hield got his points -- 21 overall -- but the Spartans did a good job of all but eliminating him for a long and critical stretch of the second half. Hield went from a little under nine minutes until the final minute of the game without any points, and an even longer 10-minute stretch without a field goal. During that time, the Spartans made their push, going from two down to take the lead, and eventually, the game.
- The score might not indicate a real track meet (though this season, it kinda does) but this game was played at a near-frenetic pace, with both teams trying to push on misses and more than content to shoot early in the shot clock. That doesn't mean it wasn't physical. The Sooners and Spartans banged plenty defensively, jumping out on shooters and making the going tough in the low post.
- The Spartans are dreadful at the free throw line -- 330th out of 345 teams -- but when they needed to come up, they did. Trice and Valentine were an ice-water 6-of-6 in the final 1:19, preserving the win.
HOUSTON -- The Duke Blue Devils defeated the Utah Utes 63-57 in an NCAA tournament South Regional semifinal Friday. The top-seeded Blue Devils advanced to face No. 2-seed Gonzaga on Sunday with a Final Four berth on the line.
Here are five observations from Duke's win:
- Duke freshman forward Justise Winslow put on a show in his homecoming debut. The Houston native had an added bounce from the start of the game but saved his best work for the second half, when he scored 13 of his game-high 21 points. When Utah cut its deficit to 49-43, the closest it had been since early in the second half, it was Winslow who scored a three-point play to boost the Blue Devils. During one stretch he made back-to-back 3-pointers, which led to a bit of chest pounding and signaling from the normally stoic forward. It nearly led to a Utah basket as Winslow was beat down the floor while making his gestures. Luckily for him, the Utes missed the basket and he avoided the ire of Mike Krzyzewski.
- The Blue Devils proved they can survive against a team with more size. Early in the first half, the Utes owned the boards but finished with just a 36-31 advantage. Once Krzyzewski inserted Amile Jefferson at power forward and Grayson Allen at shooting guard for a bigger lineup, Duke was able to forge ahead. Despite giving up 18 offensive rebounds, Duke was only outscored on second chance points 12-6.
- Delon Wright's value to Utah showed just after he picked up his third foul with about five minutes left in the first half. Duke went on an 8-0 run that turned a one possession game into a 10-point lead. The Blue Devils also used full-court pressure for the first time -- once causing a 10-second violation -- and the Utes turned the ball over on four straight possessions.
- The Utes made it clear that Duke center Jahlil Okafor was not going to beat them. Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak ran a double team at Okafor every time he touched the ball in the post. While it kept him from scoring most of the time in the first half, it didn’t keep the Blue Devils from being effective. Okafor was adept at backing up with the double closing in on him, staying patient and not panicking under the pressure and finding an open player to pass out of the situation. As the Utes kept going to the double team, Okafor began cracking in the second half. He was twice baited into making cross-court passes and turned the ball over both times. Okafor finished the game tying a season-low six points on 3-of-6 shooting.
- The Duke-Gonzaga matchup has the potential to be an offensive explosion -- if both teams can actually solve the riddle of 3-point shooting in NRG Stadium. The pace should be fast, the possessions quick and decisive, and a lot of points should be scored. There are also several individual battles to look forward to, including at point guard with Tyus Jones going against Kevin Pangos. It’ll also be interesting to see if Gonzaga coach Mark Few allows 7-foot center Przemek Karnowski to play Okafor straight up.
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