For as much as the four teams in Sunday's regional final games have already accomplished this March, there is still plenty of work to do between now and possibly kicking off the hallowed "One Shining Moment" montage.
Connecticut, Michigan State, Michigan and Kentucky hope they're only halfway through their NCAA tournament journey. Of course, there's no guarantee all of these teams will make it beyond the regional finals later in the day.
The Huskies are coming off an 81-76 win over Iowa State, their second straight victory over a lower-seeded team. If they're able to defeat Michigan State—largely viewed as the favorite in the East despite being a No. 4 seed—Kevin Ollie and Co. will have knocked off three of the top four seeds in the region.
The Spartans are trying to take Tom Izzo to his seventh Final Four, which will help keep one of the greatest streaks in NCAA history alive: Every player who has stayed four years under Izzo has reached a Final Four.
On the other side, Kentucky and Michigan are looking to keep their recent NCAA tournament excellence alive. The Wildcats are on a nine-game Big Dance winning streak, dating back to their 2012 national championship. (Of course, there was a one-year hiatus worked in there.)
Michigan was one monster Luke Hancock second half away from cutting down the nets a year ago. Though John Beilein's team isn't quite as talented from top to bottom this year, few coaches can say they've done a better job this season. With a Wisconsin team they've already beaten once waiting in the Final Four, the Wolverines have a good shot to return.
Will they? That's a question to be answered later Sunday. Here's a quick look at how the rest of the Elite Eight should play out.
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No. 7 Connecticut vs. No. 4 Michigan State (East Region)
Start Time: 2:20 p.m. ET
Stream: March Madness Live
Besides Florida vs. Dayton, there may be no starker dichotomy among Elite Eight matchups in terms of pre-tournament expectations than Connecticut vs. Michigan State.
Though it had Shabazz Napier, even a majority of pundits thought Connecticut was Shabazz Napier. The Huskies guard has been the do-everything star this season for Coach Ollie, but the team's shaky overall profile made it a dangerous selection—even in the relatively weak East Region. Facing Atlantic 10 tournament winner Saint Joseph's, Connecticut was probably picked as exiting in the round of 64 on more than a few brackets.
And they almost were taken out. Saint Joseph's took UConn to overtime on the tournament's opening day, with only the one-man Napier show putting the Huskies over the edge. After consecutive upset victories over Villanova and Iowa State, suddenly the one-man team is a game away from the Final Four.
Napier has led the way with 22.7 points per game, but breakouts from forward DeAndre Daniels and guard Ryan Boatright have helped make Ollie's first tournament run successful.
On the other side, everyone expected Michigan State to get here. Tom Izzo is essentially a March demigod to pundits (for good reason), and the East broke right for a talented Spartans squad that is peaking at the right moment. With Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson back at full health, the preseason No. 2 team in the country started looking as such.
While there were fits and starts—especially against vastly undervalued Virginia—the results mostly played out as expected. The Spartans are 5.5-point favorites against UConn, per Vegas Insider, and should win this matchup roughly 72 percent of the time, according to AccuScore.
The expectation comes rooted in those same pre-tournament notions. Napier is a star and probably won't be contained, but figuring out a secondary source of offensive production is never easy. Boatright will typically take the most shots within the offense and is prone for a 20-point game every time he touches the floor. But, on the whole, he's an inefficient 38 percent shooter who has a 4-of-14 game waiting.
Daniels has scored in double figures six straight games. In the six prior, though, he reached double figures once. Aggressiveness will be a huge factor, as he might find himself covered by Payne for stretches and vice versa.
Michigan State has no such issues. Payne, Dawson and Gary Harris are each capable of being the team's leading scorer on any given night, and while his tournament has left something to be desired from a scoring standpoint, 53rd-year senior Keith Appling remains a steadying force. The Spartans have also recaptured their defensive tenacity with their full rotation back in place, holding Virginia to 35.1 percent shooting.
The Spartans' ability to play any style makes them dangerous. They've won downtempo, bruising games against Virginia and kicked up the tempo to take out the likes of Delaware. Pretending Connecticut doesn't have a chance would be a lie, but so would acting as if Michigan State wasn't favored for a very good reason.
Score Prediction: Michigan State 75, Connecticut 67
No. 8 Kentucky vs. No. 2 Michigan (Midwest Region)
Start Time: 5:05 p.m. ET
Stream: March Madness Live
Realizing preseason expectations must be a theme of this year's March Madness. On one side of the bracket, Michigan State might be the best team in the entire tournament. In the Midwest, Kentucky has gone from preseason No. 1 to the bubble to now one game away from the Final Four.
Perhaps that was John Calipari's diabolical plan all along—to build a team seemingly like an all-freshman cyborg, tear it down through the season and come back with a bigger, better version come March. Or the Wildcats may have just gotten a lucky seeding break with Wichita State and a Louisville team they had already beaten during the regular season.
As Julius Randle told reporters Friday night, per the Detroit Free Press, either way, Calipari's unrelenting style has led them this far:
I got it. It’s hard. No, I’m joking. But he’s just, he’s tough on us. But it’s the best thing for us. He’s going to push us every day. You may not like some days, but at the end of the day, it’s what’s best for us. It’s not just about basketball. I mean, what he’s teaching us goes far beyond basketball. It’s a lot of life lessons.
Talented but deeply flawed, the Wildcats look like a team that finally "gets it." Andrew and Aaron Harrison continue to produce with wild fits of variance. The brothers were sensational against Wichita State in combining for 39 points but shot just 7-of-24 against Louisville.
Julius Randle has three consecutive tournament double-doubles, yet he's months removed from the aggressiveness that got him top-pick buzz in November. James Young, often a steadying force of outside shooting, has knocked down just three of his 10 bombs thus far.
Even in victory, Kentucky remains confounding because you never know where the production is coming from. The Wildcats' ability to get it from so many different players, though, has pushed them within a game of cutting down nets.
A year removed from Michigan nearly being national champions, I'll be honest—I have no clue how John Beilein has done it. Nik Stauskas is a special talent. His ability to stretch the floor and knock down a never-ending procession of threes creates a well-spaced offense, as does Caris LeVert's development into a three-point gunner.
But Mitch McGary's season-ending back injury left a gaping hole in the middle that on the surface was held together by superglue. Neither Jordan Morgan nor Jon Horford had engendered much faith as defenders, and even after a solid tournament run, the Wolverines are just barely a top-100 defensive team. Morgan might have been Michigan's most important player on both ends against Tennessee, though, scoring a team-high 15 points and doing an excellent job at locking down Jarnell Stokes.
He'll probably get tasked with bodying up Randle on Sunday, a matchup that will probably help determine this outcome as well. The Kentucky big man hasn't nearly been as dominant as Stokes was heading into the Sweet 16, but Randle's importance is ratcheting up as the tournament goes along. Willie Cauley-Stein is unlikely to play, per Jeff Borzello of CBS Sports, leaving Randle and Dakari Johnson to pick up the slack.
While Cauley-Stein isn't a small absence—most notably from the defensive side—our season-long sample says it's a good bet that the Wildcats can score underneath. If that's the case—and one of the Harrison twins decides Sunday is a "good" one—Kentucky should win in a close battle.
Score Prediction: Kentucky 76, Michigan 72
All advanced stats via KenPom.
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