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Storylines galore in Des Moines as four bluebloods converge for second round

DES MOINES, Iowa -- Complex situations rarely offer simple solutions. In the mind of John Calipari, though, an easy fix existed five years ago to clear the hurdle that kept Kentucky and Indiana from extending their historic basketball series.

“I didn’t want to play home and home,” said Calipari, the Wildcats’ seventh-year coach.

In the wake of Kentucky’s rout Thursday in the opening round of the NCAA tournament over Stony Brook, Calipari, as he turned an eye toward the awaiting Hoosiers, said he proposed a two-year arrangement with games in Indianapolis.

Indiana said no. And like that, this border rivalry was discontinued after 54 games. They played a year later in the 2012 Sweet 16 -- a 12-point Kentucky victory -- but have not met since. Until Saturday.

The next chapter is a big one. The Wildcats, seeded fourth in the East Region of the NCAA tournament, meet fifth-seeded Indiana at 5:15 p.m ET. And in case that’s not enough for the fans in Des Moines, Kansas, the No. 1 overall seed out of the South Region, faces ninth-seeded Connecticut in the nightcap.

It’s a blueblood convention with the makings of an epic doubleheader. The four programs still standing here in the round of 32 have combined to win 20 national titles, including eight in the past two decades and three in the past five years.

They’ve appeared 44 times in the Final Four.

“It’s going to be a great experience,” Kansas senior Perry Ellis said in anticipation of Saturday. “Just seeing all these great programs around here, it’s just an honor to be here and a great opportunity.”

These teams weaved compelling stories en route to the doorstep of the Sweet 16.

UConn, after rolling to the 2014 title as No. 7 seed, missed the tournament last year and sat on the bubble late in this season. It won three straight games at the American Athletic Conference tournament, sparked by a four-overtime victory over Cincinnati, and the winning streak reached five after a 74-67 defeat of Colorado on Thursday.

The streak matches UConn's longest of the season. How does it work repeatedly this way for the Huskies, who have won all four of their titles since 1999?

“We don’t do anything different,” coach Kevin Ollie said. “We do what UConn teams have been doing. We practice very hard. We allow the kids to challenge each other.”

Ollie said he puts no extra pressure on his players in March.

“Of course, it’s an elimination game,” he said. “If you lose, you go home.”

The Jayhawks know about pressure as the top seed in the tournament and the 12-time defending Big 12 champions.

Coach Bill Self downplayed it as a factor before Kansas opened with a 26-point win over Austin Peay. But the pressure is real, especially considering that KU lost in this round the last two years to Stanford and Wichita State. Both times, the Jayhawks were a No. 2 seed.

“We weren’t aggressive,” Kansas guard Devonte' Graham said of the loss last year to the Shockers. “We weren’t attacking. We’ve just got to be the team who keeps attacking.”

Since its 2008 championship, Kansas has returned to the Final Four only in 2012, losing to Kentucky in the final.

Indiana last advanced to the Final Four in 2002 and won the most recent of its five titles in 1987.

The Hoosiers, after a first-round loss last year to the same Wichita State team that ended Kansas’ season, rebounded to win the Big Ten this year behind the leadership of senior guard Yogi Ferrell.

Of the four first-round winners in Des Moines, Indiana likely played the best Thursday in its 99-74 win over Chattanooga. Calipari said he believes IU coach Tom Crean deserves to be named national coach of the year.

Crean, in fact, is a finalist for the Naismith Coach of the Year, along with Self, Villanova’s Jay Wright and Chris Mack of Xavier.

Kentucky, bidding for its fifth Final Four in six years, used a familiar formula to win the Southeastern Conference and reach this meeting with the Hoosiers.

The Wildcats start three freshmen, including top scorer Jamal Murray at guard and Skal Labissiere, whose six blocks Thursday paced the Wildcats’ 15-block performance, an NCAA tournament record.

As usual, Kentucky ranks among the youngest teams nationally. Its freshmen have played more minutes than any team in the tournament field. And as usual, it’s playing well in March.

“Everyone at this level is great,” Indiana guard Nick Zeisloft said of the Wildcats, “and they’re here for a reason.”

The Hoosiers tried mightily Friday to downplay the significance of their first game against Kentucky in four years.

It’s futile, though. All eyes turn to Des Moines on Saturday.

“You know,” Calipari said, “it's kind of unfortunate that this game is being played this early. This should be another round or two later.”

The same can be said of the heavyweight battle that follows it.