Cleveland, OH (SportsNetwork.com) - With a spot in the Final Four on the line, undefeated, and top-seeded Kentucky collides with third-seeded Notre Dame in the Midwest Regional final on Saturday evening at Quicken Loans Arena.
The winner of this game will take on the West Region's champ, either Wisconsin or Arizona, in the Final Four next weekend.
John Calipari's Wildcats are eyeing up a perfect season with three more victories. Kentucky moved to 37-0 on the year with a 78-39 drubbing of West Virginia in the Sweet 16. The lopsided win came after two other convincing decisions against Hampton (79-56) and Cincinnati (64-51) in earlier round action. The Wildcats are the first team in college basketball history to begin a campaign at 37-0. The team is now just one win away from tying the most wins in a college basketball season. The two teams with 38 wins were also Calipari coached squads (2008-09 Memphis team, 2011-12 Kentucky team). The Wildcats are now 21-3 under Calipari's direction in the NCAA Tournament, including one national championship (2012) and three Final Four appearances (2011, 2012, 2014). UK is 16-18 all-time in NCAA Tournament regional finals.
Mike Brey's Irish will do their best to knock off the mighty Wildcats. Notre Dame is also having a tremendous season which includes an ACC Tournament title. The team didn't look real sharp in the earlier rounds of this event, edging out both Northeastern (69-65) and Butler (67-64 OT), but did come alive in the Sweet 16 matchup with tournament darling Wichita State, knocking off the Shockers, 81-70. The win was Notre Dame's 32nd on the year. Another victory for the Irish will tie the school's all-time record for most victories in a season, 33 in the 1908-09 season. Notre Dame is making its first appearance in a regional final since 1979. The team is just 1-4 in five all- time regional finals. The lone victory and only appearance in the Final Four for Notre Dame came in 1978.
Kentucky owns a 42-19 advantage in the series with Notre Dame, which includes a 2-0 mark in the NCAA Tournament. The Irish won the last meeting though, a 64-50 decision in South Bend in 2012.
After a couple of sluggish tournament victories for Notre Dame, the team finally erupted offensively in a big win over Wichita State. The Irish shot just .400 from the floor in the first half, but led the Shockers by three points at the break (33-30). Brey's squad then turned it up a notch or two in the second half, shooting a ridiculous .750 from the floor (18-of-24) over the final 20 minutes to move into a regional final for the first time in 36 years. Demetrius Jackson led the way for Notre Dame with 20 points. Pat Connaughton had a double-double with 16 points and 10 rebounds, while Zach Auguste and Steve Vasturia finished with 15 points apiece. All-American Jerian Grant just missed a double-double of his own, posting nine points and 11 assists in the victory.
When the Irish are clicking on all cylinders they are a tough team to defend. Notre Dame enters the Elite Eight averaging 78.3 ppg on a lethal .511 shooting. The 3-pointer is a huge weapon in the arsenal for the Irish, who average over eight makes per game from behind the arc. Grant is the focal point of the Irish attack. The senior guard is shooting .484 from the field and tops the team in scoring (16.6 ppg), assists (6.7 apg) and steals (61). There is plenty of firepower behind Grant, as Auguste (12.7 ppg), Jackson (12.6 ppg) and Connaughton (12.6 ppg) can call fill up the basket as well. The 6-5 Connaughton is a catalyst for sure, with his ability to bang on the boards (7.4 rpg) as well as draw defenses outside (team-high 92 3-pointers).
There was some verbal jabs thrown Kentucky's way by a certain West Virginia freshman (Daxter Miles Jr.), but it was the Wildcats that came out swinging against the Mountaineers, leaving little doubt as to the team's passion for the game and superiority. Kentucky put the game away in the first half, shooting .609 from the floor and holding West Virginia to a paltry .192 effort, en route to a 44-18 lead at intermission. The 'Cats kept up their defensive tenacity in the second half and cruised to a 39-point romp. Trey Lyles led four Wildcats in double figures with 14 points. Andrew Harrison added 13 points, while Aaron Harrison and Devin Booker checked in with 12 apiece. Willie-Cauley Stein finished with eight points and 10 rebounds, while Karl-Anthony Towns managed just one point and two rebounds in just 13 minutes of work thanks to early foul trouble.
While the pressure of a perfect season has been mounting for some time, the Wildcats have seem unfazed by it. This year's Kentucky squad may be regarded as the best team in the history of the game when all is said and done. The Wildcats can thank their stifling defensive play for that. The team enters this game allowing just 53.5 ppg (second in the country), on .348 shooting (first in the country). Kentucky also ranks first in the nation in scoring margin (+21.3) and second in blocked shots (255). The strong defensive efforts are fueled by Kentucky's twin towers in Cauley-Stein (9.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 63 blocks) and Towns (9.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 86 blocks). Both earned All-SEC First- Team honors, with Cauley-Stein picking up All-America honors and Towns being tabbed the National Freshman of the Year. Aaron Harrison (11.1 ppg) and Devin Booker (10.1 ppg) are the top scoring options on the roster, but other vital contributors include Andrew Harrison (9.3 ppg), Lyles (8.7 ppg), Dakari Johnson (6.7 ppg) and Tyler Ulis (5.7 ppg).