It's going to be hard for the Elite Eight to match the heights set by the rest of this tournament.
The rounds of 64 and 32 were brilliant, with Cinderellas emerging, overtime finishes and a steady stream of entertaining games. The Sweet 16 had several matchups that felt like Final Four contests (Arizona versus San Diego State, Michigan State versus Virginia and Kentucky versus Louisville all come to mind).
Teams have emerged at the right time. Cinderellas have continued their runs. Top contenders remain in the mix. It's enough to get you feeling all giddy inside.
So, with the hype properly established, let's break down all you need to know about the second day of the Elite Eight matchups. I can promise you that you won't want to miss any of this action.
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|Sunday at 2:20 p.m. ET||UConn vs. Michigan State||CBS||March Madness Live||Michigan State|
|Sunday at 5:05 p.m. ET||Kentucky vs. Michigan||CBS||March Madness Live||Kentucky|
Nobody, and I mean nobody, wants to face Kentucky right now.
Kentucky has won six of its last eight games, with both losses coming to Florida, the second of which came by just a point in the SEC tournament final. They've knocked very good teams in Kansas State, Wichita State and Louisville out of the NCAA tournament and finally started playing as a team, not a collection of talented, young individuals.
Myron Medcalf of ESPN broke down their transformation:
While the college basketball world focused on their flaws and their fall, however, the Wildcats came together. The media—the creators and disseminators of the negativity, in their eyes—became their enemy. Redemption became their goal. One game at a time.
After suffering a 19-point loss at Florida on March 8, they decided to finish the year with some oomph. Sure, they'd missed the mark, their personal mark, but they still had time.
"I felt like it started at the SEC tournament," Alex Poythress said. "We got blown out at Florida [to close the regular season]. It was a bad taste in our mouth. We got spanked. Everybody was disappointed. We were disappointed in ourselves. We had to come together as a team and just show, 'C'mon, y'all. Postseason's here. It's what we all came here to do. Let's try to make something happen.'"
And suddenly, a team full of hyped prospects looks worthy of the preseason No. 1 ranking they received. The Harrison twins have found a groove. Julius Randle has continued to grow. This collection of premium talent has figured out how to win.
Can Michigan handle their length? Will the Wolverines be able to bang the boards with the Wildcats?
I don't think so. Michigan has a better offense than Louisville, of course, and is one of the finest perimeter teams in the country. They're good enough to score points on everyone. But I think this Kentucky team can implement their style of play and grind out another win, much as they did against Louisville.
They absolutely are peaking at the right moment.
Meanwhile, Michigan State survived Virginia and will face a dangerous UConn side. For all of the talk about Shabazz Napier, it's been another man who has been key in the Huskies run. From Dana O'Neil of ESPN:
The Huskies have been waiting 37 games for someone not named Shabazz Napier or Ryan Boatright to offer up some steady offense. In this NCAA tournament, [DeAndre] Daniels has raised his hand.
Daniels scored a team-high 27 points against Iowa State, 19 of which came in the second half. Add that to the 18 he had against Saint Joseph's in the second round and 11 against Villanova, and you’ve got a guy who’s becoming a viable threat at just the right time.
Long and lean, Daniels is tough to guard. He can spot up and hit a 3—he hit two against the Cyclones—but he can also work on the inside. He’s exactly what UConn has needed—and been missing—all season.
Another thing missed in the "Napier is the new Kemba Walker" storylines is the fact that this UConn team plays very good defense and shortens games by playing a ball-possession style on offense. They don't win pretty, but they've certainly been winning.
But Michigan State just got past a Virginia team that plays even better defense than the Huskies, and did so by playing a stifling brand of defense themselves and finding their offensive rhythm late. The Spartans are a more talented, athletic and balanced team than UConn, and had they not been hit with injuries midseason , they most certainly wouldn't have been a No. 4 seed.
Remember, this is a team that started the season 18-1. Now, they're just as hot. UConn will give them all they can handle, but Sparty will move on.