8:49 p.m. ET, TBS
On Selection Sunday, the common storyline about the midwest regional was that Kentucky got a great draw as only one team in the region was going to be capable of beating the Wildcats. That team? The 3-seed Notre Dame.
So here we are, with UK playing the most dangerous team in its quarter of the bracket. The Irish already have a pair of wins over one of the other 1-seeds, and it wouldn't be a tremendous stretch to see them win today. We know Notre Dame will be up for this one. If anything about the blowout win over West Virginia took Kentucky's edge off, we could see the upset of the season happen tonight.
No one ever said going 40-0 would be easy. This game is the toughest test yet for Big Blue.
Kentucky comes into the game No. 1 in the KenPom ratings, with the Irish not far below at No. 9. Notre Dame's claim to fame is offense, with them clocking in at No. 2 in offensive efficiency while just No. 99 in defensive efficiency. Kentucky is excellent in both categories, ranking sixth in offensive and first in defensive efficiency.
The teams are nearly identical in terms of pace. Kentucky averages 63.8 possessions per 40 minutes, while Notre Dame averages 64.1 possessions per 40 minutes. Nationally, those rank 233rd and 208th, respectively. We won't see the teams flying up and down the court often, but we also won't see the teams stalling for the sake of stalling either.
Kentucky has played three opponents in Notre Dame's neighborhood, which I define as being within ten spots above or below in the KenPom ratings. It has also played four games against teams that are notably worse but not by a lot.
|North Carolina||H||12||W4||W, 84-70|
|West Virginia||N||26||MW5||W, 78-39|
Among the three games against comparable teams, only the game against Louisville was really all that close. Even then, UL was doing the foul-to-extend-the-game thing at the end in a futile attempt to make a comeback. In fact, none of these games was truly close by the end, which says a lot about UK's ability to focus and execute against top competition.
Notre Dame played five games against opponents in Kentucky's neighborhood, the first team UK has played in the tournament that has actually done so. The Irish have also played five games against teams a bit worse than Kentucky by not by a lot.
|Michigan State||H||15||E7||W, 79-78 OT|
|North Carolina||R||12||W4||W, 71-70|
|North Carolina||N||12||W4||W, 90-82|
|Butler||N||19||MW6||W, 67-64 OT|
|Wichita State||N||10||MW7||W, 81-70|
Notre Dame was 3-2 in the games against teams in Kentucky's neighborhood, beating Wichita State, losing to Virginia, and going 2-1 against Duke. The Irish were a perfect 5-0 in the games against teams the next tier down. The only real red flag here is that the loss to the Blue Devils was a huge one. That game got away from them in a big way, but it is an exception, not the rule. It's not like with West Virginia, who repeatedly got blown out by great teams.
Players to Watch
The Irish are a rarity in college basketball in having four players averaging at least 12 points a game. Most teams don't have more than two players above that level. Jerian Grant is the leader at 16.6 points and 6.7 assists per game, and at 6'5", he has a size advantage against basically anyone but Kentucky. Zach Auguste is the big inside presence, scoring 12.7 points and grabbing 6.4 rebounds per game. Guard Demetrius Jackson and swingman Pat Connaughton round out the high scoring quartet, each scoring 12.6 points per game.
As I alluded to above, this is going to be an important game for Kentucky's guards. Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, and Devin Booker will be important to winning this one since the Irish do have some size in their backcourt. Grant, Connaughton, and Steve Vasturia all measure in at 6'5", but the Harrisons and Booker all are listed at 6'6". How well they neutralize that size factor will go a long way in deciding this game.
This year is the first time Mike Brey has broken through into the Elite Eight, with only one prior Sweet 16 appearance under his belt. Anything with him from here is new territory. John Calipari has made the Elite Eight in nine tournaments before, going 5-4 in such games. He has won three straight games in this round, though. In his five past appearances as a 1-seed, Calipari has made the Elite Eight each time and went 3-2 in that round.
Notre Dame is the toughest matchup for Kentucky to face in the regional, so it is fitting that the Wildcats will have to face them to get to the Final Four. We wouldn't want this to be a waltz to the finish, would we?
I can see Kentucky struggling for a bit at the beginning of this game. Say what you want about the team's focus, which is considerable, but it's going to be tough not to let the size of the win over West Virginia take a little something out of them to begin.
Ultimately, though, I have reason to think that Kentucky's defense will be able to slow down Notre Dame sooner or later. I cannot say the same thing about Notre Dame's defense regarding Kentucky's offense. Defense will win this regional championship.
Kentucky 77, Notre Dame 70