Elite Eight preview: Halfway done, but plenty of fun left for Sunday

The 2015 Elite Eight is brought to you by the color blue.

Yes, there’s Kentucky’s Big Blue Nation and Duke’s Blue Devils, but we’re talking about the entire field here. Arizona may wear red but its blood is blue. Ditto Louisville. And Notre Dame … is Notre Dame.

There will be more brand names on TV the next two days than an entire season of “Mad Men.” The closest thing left to new money is No. 2 seed Gonzaga, making only its second Elite Eight appearance and first since 1999. The closest thing to a Cinderella is No. 7 seed Michigan State, whose coach will be trying for his seventh Final Four.

That sound you hear is the thud of CBS and Turner execs hitting their heads while attempting to do cartwheels in their offices.

If you like college basketball then you love the fact top-5 foes Wisconsin and Arizona will clash Saturday. If you know college basketball then you realize Sunday’s Duke-Gonzaga matchup is absolutely fascinating. Even if you only watch college basketball in March you still know well Tom Izzo and Rick Pitino.


And everybody knows about Kentucky.

Let’s take a look at these four aristocratic matchups.

EAST: Louisville vs. Michigan State (Sunday, 2:20 p.m.): Congratulations to the Syracuse regional for taking on this year’s role as That One Region Where the High Seeds All Lose. That the two teams remaining are themselves Final Four regulars gives this game a more heightened feel than a typical No. 4 vs. No. 7 matchup.

Both teams have elevated their games considerably in the postseason. Louisville has been playing its best stretch of offense all year despite having dismissed key offensive player Chris Jones. Montrezl Harrell (24 points against NC State) and Terry Rozier (17) and have been sensational all tourney. But so have Michigan State’s Travis Trice (24 points against Oklahoma) and Denzel Valentine (18). This will inevitably be an ugly, low-scoring defensive struggle, because that’s what these teams do. Flip a coin to pick the winner.

SOUTH: Duke vs. Gonzaga (Sunday, 5:05 p.m.): It’s seniors vs. freshman, McDonald’s All-Americans vs. international All-Stars. Duke and Gonzaga could not be built more differently, which makes their No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup so intriguing. The Blue Devils are more talented, but their best players – Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones — are all freshmen. Gonzaga’s most important players — Kyle Wiltjer, Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell — are all seniors, though Wiltjier is a redshirt junior.

Gonzaga’s unique. Domantas Sabonis and Przemek Karnowski are unique big men. It’s hard to imagine Okafor dominating them. But Winslow, who notched 21 points and 10 boards against Utah, has been tremendous all tourney. The spacing he creates along with Jones’ dribble-drive abilities make Duke tough to defend. But then, the Blue Devils themselves may struggle to defend Gonzaga’s perimeter shooters.

WEST: Wisconsin vs. Arizona (*UPDATE: Wisconsin wins 85-78): Talk about an even matchup. Both teams are 34-3. Both Wisconsin’s offense and Arizona’s defense are the envy of coaching clinics everywhere. Badgers big man Frank Kaminsky and Wildcats point guard T.J. McConnell are throwbacks to an era when guys played for four years and kept getting better, both among the best in the country at their positions. Wisconsin’s Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes do a little bit of everything. So do Arizona’s Brandon Ashley and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.

But the one thing Arizona has that Wisconsin doesn’t is a jump-off-the-screen athlete like soon-to-be one-and-done forward Stanley Johnson. The freshman has been conspicuously quiet in Arizona’s past two wins over Ohio State (four points) and Xavier (12 points). If he asserts himself offensively and if 7-footer Kaleb Tarczewski holds his own against Kaminsky, coach Sean Miller will head to his first Final Four.

MIDWEST: Kentucky vs. Notre Dame (*UPDATE: Kentucky wins 68-66): Irish coach Mike Brey figures his team is as prepared as any could be to take on Kentucky given its ACC tournament run that included wins over both Duke and North Carolina. “It was all Duke blue and Carolina blue in Greensboro, and I know it will be whatever that shade of blue is out here tomorrow,” Brey said Friday in Cleveland. The truth is, nothing can prepare a team for facing the tallest team known to humanity. But this one is hardly a shoe-in for Big Blue.

As I wrote Thursday night, the Irish, playing in their first Elite Eight since 1979, are the best team Kentucky’s faced all season. Notre Dame can shoot as well as anyone left in the field. Jerian Grant is a difference-maker and the rest of the offense feeds off him. Does that mean Kentucky won’t still do its thing? Willie Cauley-Stein won’t still posterize a couple Notre Dame defenders? We shall see. As Brey said Friday: “We are America’s team tomorrow. There’s no question about it.” Notre Dame as the plucky underdog? This certainly isn’t football.

These matchups are so tight that I only feel fully confident picking one of the winners — Kentucky of course. Just for kicks I’ll take Arizona, Michigan State and Duke to join them.

Oh, and there will be one other winner this weekend — you, the NCAA tournament viewer. When bluebloods take over the bracket, a couple of classics invariably follow.

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.