Let’s pretend for a minute that such things as alternate timelines and parallel histories actually exist.
And let’s suppose, for just a moment, that somewhere out there are divergent paths for this NCAA tournament -- perhaps caused by a disgruntled Monmouth or St. Mary’s fan who time-traveled back to Selection Sunday morning to talk some sense into committee members.
Now imagine that you woke up in this lateral reality and the first thing that you learned was that Kansas, Villanova, Oklahoma and Oregon had made the Final Four. Would you even suspect that something was off?
OK, that is a roundabout and ridiculous way of making this simple point: Saturday’s two Elite Eight games would just as easily fit into a pair of national semifinals.
It’s not just that the chalk rocked so hard that we’ve got two No. 1 seeds (Kansas and Oregon) facing a pair of No. 2s (Villanova and Oklahoma). Three of these teams already owned legitimate claims to being the best in the sport earlier this season.
Kansas has spent six weeks at No. 1 in the polls this season, including the final three before the tournament. Before the Jayhawks ascended back to the pinnacle, Villanova held the top spot for three weeks. Oklahoma also enjoyed a three-week run at No. 1.
By comparison, Oregon is the relative lightweight of the bunch. Yet the Ducks are 31-6, finished No. 5 in the final regular-season poll and have salvaged the reputation of Pac-12 basketball in this tournament.
Saturday’s headliner is Kansas against Villanova at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Kentucky. Yum indeed, as this is an epic Elite Eight matchup that could be held on a Monday night in April in that alternate timeline.
The Jayhawks, who haven't lost since January, have justified their No. 1 overall seed by winning their first three games by an average of 18 points. Perry Ellis, who is rumored to have been name-checked in James Naismith’s original rules for basketball, is elevating his game like a senior should at this time of year, averaging 23 points in the tournament.
Villanova, meanwhile, has been even more impressive. The Wildcats have romped through the South Region with a 24-point average margin of victory. Their offensive efficiency has been simply spectacular. Villanova is the first team to score more than 85 points in its first three tournament games since UConn in 1995. On Thursday against Miami, the Wildcats managed a mind-boggling 1.59-points-per-possession masterpiece -- the best number in the past five tourneys.
“They’re a red-hot team right now,” Kansas coach Bill Self said Friday. “But honestly, we’ve been playing pretty well ourselves.”
The same can be said about the two teams playing Saturday’s first game, in Anaheim, California. Both Oregon and Oklahoma won their Sweet 16 games by 14 points, with the Ducks dismantling defending champion Duke and the Sooners taming Texas A&M.
Kansas, Villanova and Oklahoma all rank in the top 15 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com. Oregon’s No. 35 defensive-efficiency rating is the outlier in the group. But the Ducks’ D has turned things up in the tournament, especially in guarding 3-point shooters.
Duke went just 7-for-22 behind the arc in Thursday’s loss, making Oregon’s first three opponents a collective 17-for-60 (28.3 percent) hoisting 3s. These Ducks have some serious wingspans –- Chris Boucher can reach you right now, no matter where you are -- and that allows them to close out defensively in a flash.
That should present a unique challenge to Oklahoma, the nation’s second-best 3-point-shooting team. Oregon will no doubt try to smother Buddy Hield. He already has scored 80 points in his first three tournament games, the second-highest point total through this stage in the past five years (Louisville’s Russ Smith had 81 through three games in 2013). But here’s the best news for Oklahoma: With Hield scoring "only" 17 points against Texas A&M, the Sooners put four other players in double figures and won going away.
Lon Kruger’s team showed in the Sweet 16 that it might be able to achieve some offensive balance. Kansas, Villanova and Oregon already have that, with deep, interchangeable rotations where anyone, or sometimes everyone, can star on a given night. That’s a big reason they’re here.
And it’s another reason Saturday’s games should be Final Four-caliber. No matter what universe you’re in.