KENTUCKY vs. WISCONSIN
STORY LINE: Wisconsin might have to throw down spike strips to slow the nation’s hottest team; Kentucky has won 25 consecutive games and seems destined to win its eighth national title, which would leave it only three behind UCLA’s 11.
HOW THEY ADVANCED: Kentucky opened with a romp over eye chart IUPUI and then defeated Utah by 20, the Wildcats’ 18th win of 10 points or more during its winning streak. Wisconsin got here the hard way, holding off pesky Weber State in the first round and then rallying from 13 down to defeat Tulsa on Freddie Owens’ last-second three-pointer.
COMMON OPPONENTS: Both schools defeated Indiana and Ohio during the regular season while Wisconsin can boast it defeated the same Michigan State team that handed Kentucky one of its three losses. That was in December, though. Kentucky is a different team now.
STYLE OF PLAY: Both schools like to play defense, defense, defense. Kentucky is relatively new to the concept, having bought into Coach Tubby Smith’s all-for-one philosophy early in the season -- with startling results. Wisconsin has historically favored the grind-it-out style, but this Badger team is more versatile than the 2000 Final Four squad that played Michigan State to a standstill in the Spartans’ 53-41 victory in the national semifinal.
X FACTOR: Freddie Owens’ ankle. Yes, he made the big shot against Tulsa, but had made only four of 16 shots before his game winner. His tender ankle, tweaked in the first round, required almost round-the-clock medical treatment. Let’s see how well he makes cuts against Kentucky.
WHAT TO EXPECT: Wisconsin’s defense might be able to keep the game close for a half, but in basketball they play two, and Kentucky pulls away for its 26th consecutive win.
PITTSBURGH vs. MARQUETTE
STORY LINE: You might call it a basketball bake-off involving Pittsburgh Coach Ben Howland and Marquette’s Tom Crean, both reportedly candidates for the UCLA job. Will the winner get the first interview with Bruin Athletic Director Dan Guerrero? Or, does the loser get the first call?
HOW THEY ADVANCED: Pittsburgh was dominating in against Wagner and Indiana, winning the two games by 38 points. Marquette’s path was completely different, as the Golden Eagles survived a first-round scare from No. 14 Holy Cross and needed overtime to beat Missouri on Saturday.
COMMON OPPONENTS: For what it’s worth, both schools had regular-season wins against Villanova. Pittsburgh split Big East Conference decisions against Notre Dame, winning comfortably at home and losing by two points at South Bend, Ind. Marquette lost by 19 at Notre Dame.
STYLE OF PLAY: Again, start with defense. Pittsburgh has allowed opponents 60 points or fewer in six of the last seven games while Marquette’s Crean is a former assistant under Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, who applies principles of football to the basketball court. Both schools also rely heavily on their guards: Pittsburgh boasts Brandin Knight and Julius Page while Marquette leans on Dwyane Wade and Travis Diener.
X FACTOR: Diener. Hey, we knew this guy was good, but can he really keep this up? Diener saved his team from an upset with 29 points against Holy Cross and had 26 against Missouri.
WHAT TO EXPECT: Pittsburgh wins a close game, delaying UCLA’s ability to interview Howland for at least another two days.