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NCAA 'Sweet 16': Kentucky, Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Arizona advance

Thursday night's "Sweet 16" round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament saw four teams move on to Saturday's regional finals. The field will be reduced to an 'Elite Eight' after tonight's games, which are being televised on CBS and TBS. 

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    Wisconsin Badgers forward Sam Dekker (15) grabs a rebound against the North Carolina Tar Heels during the second half in the semifinals of the West regional of the 2015 NCAA Tournament at Staples Center in Los Angeles, Calif., Mar. 26, 2015.
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Last night’s games in the NCAA men’s tournament yielded, for the most part, predictable results. The lower-seeded teams all won, with a couple of them needing some inspiration to close out their opponents in the final minutes. But the first half of the “Elite Eight” is a power conference fan’s dream – Arizona, Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Kentucky all move on to the weekend.

In the Midwest region, the top-ranked Kentucky Wildcats, at 37-0, have looked strong throughout the tournament. They have size (they’re the tallest team in college basketball, and even taller than all NBA teams, except the Minnesota Timberwolves), athleticism, and great coaching. The fifth-seeded West Virginia Mountaineers, on the other hand, are smaller, play tenacious defense and typically generate more turnovers than most teams. But the Mountaineers could never have fathomed the type of razor-sharp Wildcat buzzsaw they ran into last night. Even Freddy Kruger might have chuckled at Kentucky’s efficiency. West Virginia (25-10) made only six baskets in nearly thirty minutes of play on the way to being routed by the Wildcats, 78-39, at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.

West Virginia only scored two points in nearly nine minutes of action in the first half, piling up fouls all the way. One media outlet was moved to describe them as “… a helpless, poor pile of laundry that was once a talented West Virginia Mountaineers team.” By halftime, they had made just five of 25 shots, while Kentucky was shooting a gaudy 61 percent from the floor. Like a scene out of  Disney’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” the Wildcats’ blue tidal wave continued to rotate in an endless procession of fresh troops (their bench contributed 30 points on the night). The Wildcats also made the most of their trips to the foul line. They got to the stripe 32 times as opposed to the Mountaineers 19 – of which they converted 81 percent.

Kentucky played an inspired game, even for a team that is undefeated, as well as a big favorite to win last night. They had some motivation. West Virginia freshman Daxter Miles Jr. lit the fuse when he suggested that after last night, Kentucky would be 36-1. He also added insult to injury when said that the Wildcats don’t play hard. Kentucky’s players were merciless afterward. Freshman point guard Tyler Ulis was quoted as saying, “Our whole plan was to crush their spirit. Beat ‘em by 50 for disrespecting us.” Guard Aaron Harrison added, “We were super motivated … We’re just so happy to play and then the added trash talk, saying we were going to be 36-1 was fuel to the fire. We wanted to make a statement to them and the rest of the country.” Kentucky now faces Notre Dame in the Midwest regional final on Saturday.

The Wichita State Shockers’ senior tandem of Ron Baker on the perimeter and Tekele Cotton in the paint were effectively neutralized by a poised and tenacious Notre Dame squad last night en route to a convincing 81-70 win over the Shockers in their Midwest regional semifinal game. For No. 7 seed Wichita State (30-5), the tables were effectively turned from their win last Sunday over Kansas. Demetrius Jackson scored 20 points for the third-seeded Irish – seemingly from everywhere on the floor – and they also got double-digit production from starters Pat Connaughton (16 points, along with 10 rebounds), and Zach Auguste and Steve Vasturia (15 points apiece). Irish coach Mike Brey rotated in only seven players on the evening, and all but one scored.

Wichita State got another strong performance from guard Fred Van Vleet (25 points), and powerful production on the inside from Darius Carter, who added 22. Otherwise, their offensive production was woeful. The Shockers hit only 3 of 18 shots from beyond the arc (16.7 percent), and only 40 percent of their field goals, compared with Notre Dame’s 55.6 percent. And Wichita State’s trident of Baker, Cotton and Evan Wessel, who scored a combined 43 points against Kansas, could only manage a collective 15 last night. Taking into account all the statistical superiority Notre Dame demonstrated last night, one might be inclined to think a let-down from the match against the Jayhawks played something of a part in Wichita State’s wilting down the stretch. Notre Dame now advances to the Elite Eight for the first time in 36 years.

In the West, the No. 1 seed Wisconsin Badgers needed a late scoring burst to extinguish the icy, powder-blue flame of the North Carolina Tar Heels, 79-72, last night at Los Angeles’ Staples Center. After 20 minutes, the fourth-seeded Tar Heels (26-12) held a 33-31 first half advantage in a game where the lead see-sawed all evening. But in the end, the Badgers (34-3) got the best offensive game of guard Sam Dekker’s career (23 points) and six crucial points off the bench from Zak Showalter to ignite a 19-7 second half run. The Badgers’ seven-foot star Frank “The Tank” Kaminski, after a slow first half, tallied 19, and forward Nigel Hayes, who had earlier expressed pleasure at being able to suit up at the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant’s locker, notched 12 important points of his own in capping the Badgers’ 48-point second half, where they shot 58 percent as a team from the floor.

North Carolina kept the pressure on early in the second half, going on their own 14-6 scoring binge and retaking the lead, 53-46, before Wisconsin went on theirs – including three three-pointers by Marcus Paige to get the Tar Heels to within one with just 54 seconds to play. The Badgers now meet the No. 2 seed Arizona Wildcats in their regional final on Saturday – Arizona having escaped a close game of their own last night against the Xavier Musketeers.

On paper, the No. 2 seed Arizona Wildcats are superior in almost every statistical category to the Xavier Musketeers. Another tall, athletic team that can put up big numbers – they defeated their first two opponents in the tournament by a combined 36 points. Their head coach, Sean Miller, is a master of recruiting. In fact, Rivals.com has ranked Arizona’s 2015 recruiting class number one in the nation. But what Arizona probably didn’t expect was a relentlessly scrappy Xavier team that led at several points last evening, but who eventually were outlasted by the Wildcats, 68-60, in Los Angeles.

The Musketeers (23-14) played an inspired game under coach Chris Mack, who was Sean Miller’s assistant at Xavier until Miller took over Arizona’s program in 2009. In fact, the game was tied at 28 at halftime. The battles underneath the basket were fierce, with the Wildcats’ Kaleb Tarczewski (12 points, 12 rebounds) locking horns with Xavier’s blocky center Matt Stainbrook (17 points, 10 rebounds) for most of the game. Helping the Wildcats was a 19-7 closing scoring run, led by clutch buckets in the last minutes from guard T.J. McConnell (17 points). Former McDonald’s All-American Stanley Johnson tallied 12 for Arizona (34-3), and the Wildcats’ bench, led by Gabe York (who scored 9), added 14 important points on the night. Arizona now has an opportunity to avenge a loss to Wisconsin in the 2014 NCAA West region final.

Tonight’s semifinal games include No. 4 Louisville versus No. 8 North Carolina State and No. 7 Michigan State against No. 3 Oklahoma in the East region. No. 11 UCLA plays No. 2 Gonzaga, and No. 1 Duke meets No. 5 Utah in the South regional semifinals.

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