The Elite Eight is here. Two games that have a chance to become classics. Let’s break them down.
#1 Wisconsin vs. #2 Arizona – West Regional Final (at Los Angeles, CA) – at 6:09 PM ET on CBS.
Three-hundred-and-sixty-four days ago, about 40 miles away (by Los Angeles-area freeways), the Badgers and the Wildcats engaged in an epic 45-minute battle to decide the West Region’s entrant into the 2014 Final Four. For the final 18 minutes of the game, no more than a single possession separated the two teams. On the final possession of regulation, Traevon Jackson missed a jumper that would have won it for Wisconsin. Arizona had two possessions in the final 30 seconds of the game and strung together a T.J. McConnell miss, a Nick Johnson offensive foul and, on the final possession, Johnson unable to get a shot off before the final buzzer. The Badgers danced. Roughly a month ago, the possibility of this very rematch began to rear its head. And now, here it is. Sub out Ben Brust, Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson. Sub in Stanley Johnson and Brandon Ashley. Bump up Bronson Koenig, bump back Traevon Jackson. Other than that, this thing should look awfully familiar. A year ago, Frank Kaminsky scored 28 points on 11/20 shooting with three threes and recorded just his second-ever double-double. Also, Bo Ryan’s team held the Wildcats without a single fastbreak point. And on the other side of the court, McConnell was limited to 2/10 shooting with just two assists and couple turnovers. Those three things right there are the areas Arizona needs to change in order to have a chance to flip the script today. Let’s start with Kaminsky. Junior center Kaleb Tarczewski will be the guy mostly charged with checking Frank the Tank. And in the post, Tarczewski will hold his own. However, Kaminsky’s ability to drag a big guy out to the perimeter and either knock in shots out there or get to the rim off the bounce will present problems. Let’s put it this way: if Kaminsky is again able to knock in three threes against the Wildcats like he did last season, that may force Sean Miller’s hand into an adjustment. The other area where the Arizona needs to adjust slightly is in making a priority of getting out in transition and getting some easy hoops. They’ve struggled with their halfcourt offense in their past two games, mostly against zone defenses. While Wisconsin won’t zone them, it would be a major boon to Arizona’s confidence if they could see the ball go in the basket early on some relatively easy transition looks. Lastly, there’s McConnell, the Wildcats’ senior leader. In that game a year ago, he had an offensive rating of 88. Since that time, in the 37 games that Arizona has played, McConnell has only three times had that poor of an offensive game. McConnell will certainly want to make up for his performance a year ago, but he needs to play within himself, make the smart play on offense, the tough play on defense and let the game come to him. If Wisconsin can get him out of his game, Arizona doesn’t stand much of a chance. But if the Wildcats’ leader is the same T.J. McConnell we’ve come to know this season, that could be enough to flip the final score.
The RTC Certified Pick: Arizona
#1 Kentucky vs. #3 Notre Dame – Midwest Region Elite Eight (from Cleveland, OH) – at 8:49 PM EST on TBS.
Kentucky and Notre Dame advanced to the Elite Eight after both teams put together very impressive performances Thursday night. The Wildcats completely outclassed West Virginia on their way to a thoroughly dominant 78-39 victory. Notre Dame displayed its incredible offensive efficiency throughout its 81-70 victory over a Wichita State squad that had built much of its reputation on the defensive end of the court. Saturday night is going to be a different story for Mike Brey’s group. The Irish use a four guard line-up and have been using 6’5″ senior swingman Pat Connaughton as their power forward all season. While Notre Dame lacks a lot of size, unbeaten Kentucky’s size might just be its greatest strength. The Wildcats start three mammoth forwards in freshmen Trey Lyles and Karl-Anthony Towns and junior Willie Cauley-Stein. John Calipari also has the luxury of having two additional gargantuan forwards that he can bring off the bench in sophomore forwards Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee. Kentucky’s massive frontline might be its greatest asset, but it should be noted that its backcourt is also pretty stellar. Sophomores Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison and freshmen Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis provide the Wildcats with strong shooting and ball distribution skills. For Notre Dame to stand a fighting chance in this one, it is going to need its strong backcourt of sophomores Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia and seniors Connaughton and Jerian Grant to hit shots at an extremely efficient clip. The Irish are second in the country in field goal percentage at 51%. They will need to shoot at least that against the Wildcats if they want to be in it late in the game. Expect Notre Dame to hit some shots and for this one to be pretty close for the first 30 minutes, but Kentucky’s size and sheer talent advantage will take over in the final 10 minutes. The Wildcats will end up winning by a fairly comfortable margin as they will move to 38-0 on the season and advance to next weekend’s Final Four in Indianapolis.
The RTC Certified Pick: Kentucky