Now it gets serious. The first week of the NCAA tournament produced its playful moments and stirring upsets, but no true Cinderella survivors. Not when 14 of the Sweet 16 have been to the Final Four – not you, Xavier and Gonzaga -- and the lowest seed left has four letters. UCLA.
This is still about Kentucky’s championship -- thumbs up or thumbs down -- and next at the microphone is West Virginia, who is really ready to rumble with the Wildcats. But overall, it is an eclectic Sweet 16. Somehow squeezed into the bracket are . . .
Five -- count ‘em -- five ACC teams. One-third of the league is still alive in the tournament.
The only three teams in the country to shoot better than 50 percent for this regular season; Gonzaga, Notre Dame and Duke.Six teams with double digit losses.
The only coach in history to take four different schools this far in the tournament; Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger, by way of Kansas State, Florida and UNLV.
The school millions didn’t think even deserved to be invited to the event. UCLA. "We’re proving," Bryce Alford said after beating SMU and UAB, "that we belong."
The coach who is 8-2 against John Calipari. West Virginia’s Bob Huggins.
The man who is hoping this month helps soothe a harsh winter, when he lost his mentor Dean Smith and faced a scandal. North Carolina’s Roy Williams.
The coach whose mother died of a heart attack last Saturday, but didn’t tell anyone until the game was over. Notre Dame’s Mike Brey.
The team that lost five overtime games this year, and was beaten at home by Texas Southern. Michigan State.
The team that beat Duke by 12 points but lost to Wofford. NC State.
The sixth-place team in the Big East. Xavier.
The team that hadn’t even made the field for five years. Utah.
The team nearly shooting 65 percent so far in the tournament. Duke.
The only team from the state of Kansas, and it sure ain’t Kansas. Wichita State.
The former Kentucky Wildcat who is averaging more points for his new team than anyone is averaging for Kentucky. Gonzaga’s Kyle Wiltjer, who is at 17.1. Best for the Wildcats is Aaron Harrison at 11.1.
The team that has made 126 more free throws than its opponents have shot, and has had a player foul out only three times all season. Wisconsin.
The traditional power never in four consecutive Sweet 16s. Until now. Louisville.
Anyone else? Oh yeah, the only 36-0 team in the history of college basketball. Kentucky.
All that should be enough for some compelling matchups.We have Sean Miller going against Xavier, the school he left behind to take the job at Arizona. He’s just hoping this regional is different, after losing 64-63 to Wisconsin in last year’s regional final, 73-70 to Ohio State in the 2013 semifinal, and 65-63 to Connecticut in the 2011 final. The Close-Call Cats.
We have Duke vs. Utah in a game for consonant lovers. Mike Krzyzewski vs. Larry Krystkowiak. "I don’t know how many times two Polish coaches have gone against one another," Krzyzewski said.
We have Wisconsin vs. North Carolina, new royalty against old. It’ll be the Tar Heels’ 22nd game this season against an opponent that was invited to this NCAA tournament.
We have an intra-conference game between Louisville and NC State. So many ACC teams are still alive, they have to start bumping into one another. They met once this season, and the Wolfpack won by nine in Louisville.
We have UCLA against Gonzaga, two big West Coast names who have played but twice ever. The last meeting lives in infamy at Gonzaga, the Bruins scoring the last 11 points of the game to blow past the Zags 73-71 in the 2006 Elite Eight. The Final Four went poof in two minutes, and it left Gonzaga star Adam Morrison on the court sobbing. Mark Few, by the way, is 437-102 in his 16 years with the Zags. In that same time span, UCLA coach Steve Alford has worked at three different schools.
We have Notre Dame and Wichita State, who have not met in 24 years. And Brey now the sentimental story of the tournament, as he mourns his mother. "She was with me all the way today," he said late Saturday night, after telling the world what he had gone through that day.
We have Michigan State and Oklahoma, and two coaches with recent confirmations of March brilliance. Tom Izzo for getting to the Sweet 16 for the 13th time in 18 years, and Kruger for his often-unnoticed talent of escorting one school after another up the tournament ladder.
"It obviously doesn’t make a lot of difference in people’s lives. Certainly won’t in mine," he said of becoming the first coach to take a fourth school to the Sweet 16.
And perhaps most intriguing of all, we have Kentucky and West Virginia. They might need six officials with yellow flags. It could well be something between a spring college football game and Mixed Martial Arts.
West Virginia presses everywhere, all the time, and is unapologetically physical. The idea is to attack in waves until someone cracks. Maryland did. Hence, the Mountaineers have forced 228 more turnovers than they have committed, grabbed 261 more offensive rebounds and taken 508 more shots. That’s how they get away with being tied for 278th in the nation in field-goal percentage.
"It seems like everywhere we go, people say, well, it’s not pretty," Huggins said. "Well, I think it’s beautiful."
It would appear this fierce attack mode mentality is still in force, even against the Kentucky machine. This from the West Virginia camp Sunday, about the Wildcats.
Devin Williams: "It’s another team. They put their drawers on the same way we do."Juwan Staten: "Since we started, we played the underdog role. They didn’t think we’d get past Buffalo. We got past Buffalo. They didn’t think we’d get past Maryland. We got past Maryland. I’m pretty sure nobody in the world thinks we’re going to get past Kentucky, besides the 1.2 million people that’s in West Virginia. So we’re going to keep doing what we do, and keep playing.’’
But can doing what they do work against 36-0?
"Why wouldn’t it work? If we got to this point, why change anything?"
The question was put to Huggins, if his team will be ready for the challenge.
"Well, 36 people haven’t been," he said. "I don’t know. We’re going to have fun trying.
"I wish I could sit here and tell you we’re definitely going to win. I can’t do that. But I can tell you that we’re not going to be scared."
Kentucky shot 37 percent against Cincinnati and still won by 13. "What they learned today," Calipari said, "is we don’t have to shoot the ball well and we can still survive."
That game was as gentle as demolition derby. Cincinnati sought a first-strike strategy when it came to body contact. Everyone tries something. Is that the grand plan to stop the Wildcats? Try to push them around?
"You go through a lot of things, [to beat Kentucky] and eventually you start repeating," the Wildcats' Willie Cauley-Stein said. "Like beating us up and trying to play physical. We’re prepared for it. We go against each other every day in practice. None of that stuff really bothers us.
"But you’ve got to try something, be annoying. That’s what I would do if I was playing against us."
"We’re ready. We’re pumped," Jonathan Holton said. "When we get back to Morgantown, it will be all Kentucky, Kentucky, Kentucky. We want Kentucky bad."
It was Huggins who briefly mentioned something, too. "I don’t know if anybody’s really pressed them."
Someone is about to. In a Sweet 16 that has nearly something for everyone, it all starts with Kentucky. There’s a test coming.