The 2015 NCAA Tournament now has its signature game. Just like last year, that game involves Kentucky.
Last year, Kentucky’s second round game against Wichita State was the best of the tourney and maybe one of the best in years, an up-and-down, back-and-forth, 78-76 UK win. Last night, in a tourney that started out strong but has almost bordered on dull the last couple rounds, Kentucky’s Midwest regional final against Notre Dame was a welcome return to the NCAA Tournament that we’ve been spoiled to expect. The Wildcats pulled it out, but not without more than a few nervous moments, as Notre Dame gave a heroic effort before missing a shot at the buzzer in falling 68-66.
Twelve ties and 20 lead changes. Those two numbers alone could tell one almost all they needed about how terrific of a game this was, but it was even more compelling to watch than that. The Fighting Irish actually led much of the second half, but the Wildcats had answers. And then Notre Dame had answers. It went down to the final seconds, when Andrew Harrison made two free throws and Jerian Grant missed a heavily contested last-ditch fall away three-pointer from the left corner as time expired. Kentucky is headed to the Final Four for the fourth time in five years.
(Brief side note: for as much guff as college basketball officials receive-including from here-it must be noted that the foul call in the final seconds against the Irish was handled beautifully. It was a very tough block/charge call, and rather than give the benefit of the doubt to the defender as usually happens, it was absolutely the right call.)
A win by Notre Dame would not have been the biggest upset in the history of this tournament, despite what a few might float. It would’ve ranked among the biggest regional final stunners in the last 30 years, right there with George Mason knocking out overwhelming tourney favorite Connecticut in 2006, VCU beating Kansas in 2011, Utah blowing out defending champion Arizona by 25 points in the “Triangle-and-Two” game in 1998 or 11th-seeded LSU defeating Kentucky in 1986.
For those who were starry-eyed after Kentucky’s blowout of West Virginia two days earlier, this should be a bit of a reality check as we go to the Final Four now. The Wildcats are terrific and, perhaps most importantly, they are battle-tested and can win close games as well as they can blowouts. They are not invincible. Notre Dame proved there are ways to make UK look very average defensively if a team has enough shooters to pull all of those big guys away from the basket and makes them chase (which just happens to sound a lot like its next opponent). If Kentucky does go 40-0, it will have been an accomplishment not for complete and total dominance as much for how this team has battled through games when it wasn’t dominant and easily could’ve lost.
As for Notre Dame…it should go without saying, but there’s not a thing to be ashamed of. If one had said at the start of this season that the Irish would advance to the Elite Eight, they would’ve received very funny looks. This was a terrific offensive team to watch, an example of what can happen when teams recruit and develop offensive players and then turn them free. Like Wichita State against Kentucky last year, Notre Dame went down with an ultimate fight and gained every bit as much respect in defeat as it would have in victory.
- The other regional final on Saturday also showed just what a great offensive team can do, even now in a sport so weighted towards defense. For the second time in three days, a team shot at an unconscious level for 20 minutes as Wisconsin shot 78.9% in the second half against a noted great defensive team in defeating Arizona 85-78 to advance to the Final Four for the second straight year. That shooting mark was even better than Notre Dame’s 75.0% in the second half Thursday against another quality defensive squad in Wichita State.
Playing in the West Region final again a year after a Badger overtime victory over the Wildcats, it turned out not much changed: Arizona had no answer for Frank Kaminsky, who had 29 points in this one. There was no answer for Sam Dekker, either, as the junior scored 27 and hit 5 of 6 three-pointers, including the final one to put it away with 18 seconds left after the Wildcats mysteriously didn’t foul. In all, Wisconsin made 10 of 12 three-pointers in the second half and 12 of 18 for the game, in all shooting 55.6% from the field. Arizona actually shot even better-55.8%, as well as an incredible 28 of 30 from the foul line-but the threes were the difference, and Badgers proved to be the (slightly) better team. Up next is a national semifinal against Kentucky and another rematch of a tourney game last year for the Badgers. If Gonzaga defeats Duke on Sunday, you can bet there will be considerable sport radio talk on Monday about reseeding the Final Four, with the assumption that the two 1 seeds meeting would be the “real” national championship game.
- An incredible story continues in the CIT, where Division I’s lone independent has advanced to the semifinals. New Jersey Tech defeated Canisius 78-73, knocking out another team that had made an unexpected run in that tournament. NJIT now will face Northern Arizona, while Tennessee-Martin is at Evansville in the other semifinal. UT-Martin also has a distinct Cinderella feel to it, which somehow places NAU and Evansville in the role of bullies.
- It still has not been officially announced yet, but all reports are that Rick Barnes is out as coach at Texas. Barnes has posted a 402-180 record in 17 years at the school (has it really been that long??). His record included 16 trips to the NCAA Tournament and one Final Four appearance in 2003.
- The last two spots in the Final Four will be spoken for, with the East regional final featuring top seed Duke against No. 2 Gonzaga and the South including two old hands to this March business in Louisville and Michigan State. The former game has all the makings of another classic. The Bulldogs are so loaded offensively but also will have an experience advantage against the ultra-talented Blue Devils. Przemek Karnowski against Jahlil Okafor will be fascinating to watch after the big Pole’s head-turning performance against UCLA. The second game has that feel of two teams who shouldn’t be here, and that is said affectionately because this is nothing new for either Louisville or Michigan State. For whichever team advances, it will not be the first time in their recent history that they have grabbed a very unlikely Final Four berth. Watch the backcourts here, as the Cardinals’ Terry Rozier and Quentin Snyder have been on fire in the tourney, but so has MSU’s Travis Trice.
- A remider that College Basketball Tonight airs this evening from 5-7 p.m. Eastern time on WNYM AM 970 The Answer in New York City, with Ted Sarandis hosting and Hoopville’s Phil Kasiecki joining a number of great guests. A live stream link will be available here before the show airs.
Enjoy your Sunday.