On Saturday, Elite Eight combatants Oregon and Oklahoma will meet on a basketball court for the first time in more than 75 years.
On Sunday, North Carolina and Notre Dame will reunite for the first time in … 16 days.
Heading into the Elite Eight, the 2016 NCAA tournament has essentially split into two events — one for the ACC and one for everybody else. With Virginia, Notre Dame, Syracuse and North Carolina all advancing in the East and Midwest regions Friday night, one conference now occupies all of the remaining spots on the right-hand side of the bracket.
Only once before has a single conference claimed half the Elite Eight field — the 2009 Big East. But that bracket dispersed those teams a bit differently, and ultimately none reached the title game.
Halfway through the tournament, the ACC already knows it will have a team playing that last Monday night. In the meantime, Sunday’s all-ACC quarterfinals (North Carolina-Notre Dame and Virginia-Syracuse) will determine who meets in an all-ACC Final Four game six nights later.
First up, though, Oregon-Oklahoma and Kansas-Villanova will treat us to a doubleheader Saturday of fascinating 1 vs. 2 games. If the Jayhawks and Sooners plant a Big 12 flag on the other side, we’ll get a juicy encore of the teams’ two highly enjoyable regular-season meetings. But Oregon-Villanova would be pretty cool, too.
Here’s quick primer for Saturday and Sunday’s Elite Eight matchups. Saturday’s games shape up to be far more tantalizing, mainly because we haven’t already seen them.
Somehow these two have not met in the NCAA tournament since the very first one. Somehow former Kansas State colleagues Lon Kruger and Dana Altman never have faced each other as head coaches. Both of those droughts will end Saturday, as will a couple others — either the Sooners will reach their first Final Four since 2002 or the Ducks make their first trip since … 1939.
It’s going to be a lot of fun watching two athletic and versatile teams full of guards who can block shots and big guys who can shoot. All eyes will be on OU star Buddy Hield as he attempts to raise his profile even further by leading the Sooners to Houston. Should Oregon prevail, it’s safe to surmise that Ducks standout Dillon Brooks will soon be known as more than just the guy whom Coach K tried to lecture.
It’s a tremendous testament to Kansas coach Bill Self that this will be his eighth Elite Eight in the past 17 seasons (dating to Tulsa in 2000). Unfortunately he’s advanced in only two of the first seven. This may be his toughest test yet. While the 33-4 Jayhawks earned the tourney’s top overall seed, the 31-5 Wildcats very well could have been a No. 1 seed themselves if not for a loss to Seton Hall in the Big East tournament final.
Kansas came into the tourney as the nation’s hottest team, its winning streak now at 17 games, but Villanova is on fire. The Wildcats have won three games by an average of 24 points while shooting a staggering 53.2 percent from 3 and 59.9 percent overall. That’s up from 35.6/47.8 during the regular season. It should be an epic clash highlighted by two heart-and-soul seniors, Kansas star Perry Ellis and Villanova staple Ryan Arcidiacono.
MIDWEST: No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 10 Syracuse (Sunday, 6:09 p.m. ET)
It’s been 21 years since Virginia graced the Elite Eight, but Tony Bennett’s team has left little doubt of its place in this lofty territory. Known primarily for their defense, the Cavs have been clicking on offense, including Friday night’s 84-71 win over No. 4 seed Iowa State. Syracuse is back in the Elite Eight for the seventh time under coach Jim Boeheim, this time with his lowest-seeded team by far. Two enormous defensive plays helped the Orange pull off a last-minute heist against Gonzaga on Friday.
Syracuse celebrates after edging Gonzaga on Friday.
Syracuse seniors Michael Gbinije and Trevor Cooney carried the Orange for much of the year, but freshmen Tyler Lydon and Malachi Richardson push this team over the top. As always, Boeheim wlll rely on a combination of length and the 2-3 zone to try to frazzle his opponent, but veteran-laden Virginia won’t easily rattle. Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill and London Perrantes have been through a few rodeos at this point.
EAST: No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 6 Notre Dame (Sunday, 8:49 p.m. ET)
For years, Mike Brey’s Irish were a surefire bet to bow out early in the NCAA tournament — usually to a double-digit seed. But the no-tie guy has flipped the script completely these past two years, producing Notre Dame’s first back-to-back Elite Eights since the late ’70s. For North Carolina, of course, this is old hat — the Heels are making their seventh Elite Eight appearance in the past 12 seasons, albeit the first in four years.
We last saw these two meet way back on March 11, when UNC drubbed the Irish 78-47 in the ACC tournament semifinals. A month before that, the Irish handled the Tar Heels 80-76 in South Bend. The latter result seems more relevant than the former. Behind Marcus Paige’s rediscovered shot, UNC has won each of its first three games by at least 16 points, while Notre Dame required improbable last-second escapes against Stephen F. Austin and Wisconsin. Now, the Irish need an Easter miracle.
By this time late Sunday we’ll know our 2016 Final Four field. We assume ACC commissioner John Swofford already has booked his flight.