Kentucky is in Elite class of its own going into NCAA regional finals

Kentucky is in Elite class of its own going into NCAA regional finals
Kentucky's Andrew Harrison is congratulated by Willie Cauley-Stein (15) during the second half of a 78-39 victory over West Virginia in the Midwest Regional semifinal on Thursday. (David Richard / Associated Press)

Seven schools have survived, crawled and advanced their ways to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament

The other team is Kentucky.


So, anyway, welcome to the Elite ... One.

Others tagging along for selfies and quality TV face time: Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Arizona, Louisville, Michigan State, Duke and Gonzaga.

One thing we learned through sectional qualifying for next week's Final Four is that Joe Namath, and only Joe Namath, should guarantee victories in advance of sporting events.

West Virginia may now lead the lobby for making freshmen ineligible, or at least inaudible.

Daxter Miles Jr. only poked a stick in Kentucky's eye when he ludicrously predicted West Virginia would end the Wildcats' season at 36-1.

Kentucky, looking for ways to stay interested, took that as a challenge and won by 39.

After the game, Wildcats' guard Devin Booker tapped out a Twitter post: "36 and Won."

Miles hid in a lavatory stall before being coaxed out by an assistant coach, after which the kid conceded, "Kentucky played great."

The best thing about freshmen, a wise coach once said, is they become sophomores.

Whatever notions anyone had about things possibly getting sticky for Kentucky once it faced tougher competition … have not been realized.

The Wildcats tiptoed through three NCAA tulips by an average of 25 points.

Experts, opposing coaches, gardeners, welders and stock analysts have offered theories as to how best stop one of the great runaway trains in NCAA history.

The correct answer may be: Forget about it.

"They're going to have to have a bad day," West Virginia Coach Bob Huggins said.


The Kentucky conundrum is this: You can play them slow and ugly, the way Cincinnati did, and only lose by 13.

Or, you can full-court press Kentucky, the way West Virginia did, and end up trailing, 44-18, at the half.

Third-seeded Notre Dame, in Saturday's Midwest regional final in Cleveland, becomes the latest team to take a haymaker swing.

The Irish have reached the round of eight for the first time since 1979 and hope to rekindle its rich tradition of dragon slaying. Notre Dame is the program, remember, four decades ago, that snapped UCLA's 88-game winning streak.

"I mean, you look back in history, we've been able to do it," Irish guard Pat Connaughton said

Of course, it's not like Adrian Dantley is coming back from 1974 to suit up for the Irish.

Others making the miracles-do-happen pitch point to the fact Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey was a Duke assistant coach in 1991 when the Blue Devils stunned undefeated Nevada Las Vegas in the national semifinals.

"Maybe similar to this set-up," Brey said.

Maybe not.

Notre Dame is a high-octane, entertaining team playing its best basketball of the season.

The problem is it is facing a team playing the best basketball of this millennium.

Notre Dame certainly does not fear Kentucky after winning the Atlantic Coast tournament with consecutive wins over Duke and North Carolina.

Kentucky's armor, though, seems almost impenetrable.

The Wildcats' bench has outscored its opponents' bench in 36 of its 37 wins. They are not even poor foul shooters, having shot 70% or better in their last 10 games.

Notre Dame is a hot-shooting, rhythmic team that made 75% of its second-half shots in Thursday's 11-point win over Wichita State.

The Irish, often the "black hats" in college sports, figure to have plenty of support in their plucky spoiler roles.

"We are America's team tomorrow," Brey said Friday.

That said, most of the experts are going with "Kentucky's Team."

A look at the others participating in regional final games at this year's Kentucky Invitational:


No. 1 Wisconsin vs. No. 2 Arizona

The schools reenact last year's West regional thriller in Anaheim, won by Wisconsin in overtime.

Many of the same players are back for the sequel, including Wisconsin's Sam Dekker and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson of Arizona.

How much did the pain of that defeat linger?

Dekker said Friday he ran into Hollis-Jefferson last summer at a basketball camp.

Hollis-Jefferson's first words: "Don't talk to me."

Key note: Arizona does not want to be trailing late in the game. Wisconsin is 33-0 this season when holding the lead with five minutes to play, 116-3 in the last five years. Wisconsin Coach Bo Ryan's team is extraordinarily efficient and knows how to lock down on defense when it matters most.


No.1 Duke vs. No.2 Gonzaga (Sunday)

This should be fun. Gonzaga reached the regional final for the first time since 1999 with a 12-point win over pesky No.11 UCLA, which proved it had improved since the teams met at Pauley Pavilion in December. UCLA lost that one by 13.

Duke fended off Pac-12 surprise Utah to earn the 85th tournament for Mike Krzyzewski, who now stands one victory from making his 12th Final Four.

That would tie him for first on the all-time list with John R. Wooden.

Gonzaga vs. Duke matches the Bulldogs' veteran experience against Duke's talented youth.

"They're old," Krzyzewski said when asked about Gonzaga in his postgame TV interview.

Hey, coach, you're no spring chicken.


No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 7 Michigan State (Sunday)

The coaches were definitely undervalued in the region that time, and the top-seeds, forget them.

Rick Pitino of Louisville is either going to get to his eighth Final Four, or Tom Izzo of Michigan State is going to reach his seventh.

Passage to the Final Four in this region opened like a cheap suitcase after No.1 Villanova and No. 2 Virginia lost. It is the only region in which neither of the top two seeds made it to the finals.