Sweet 16 takeaways: Kentucky’s easy road has hit a dead end

Thursday’s quartet of Sweet 16 games involved no upsets. If anything, it was the exact opposite: a night spent watching some of the best teams in the country this season do their thing (some in more dominant fashion than others). Saturday’s resulting Wisconsin-Arizona and Kentucky-Notre Dame Elite Eight matchups should be outstanding. But first, here’s what we learned Thursday night.

Kentucky will finally face a real test Saturday. Seriously. John Calipari’s now 37-0 juggernaut treated West Virginia like a No. 16 seed Thursday, going up 18-2 off the bat and 42-15 late in the first half. By the end of the Wildcats’ 78-39 rout, the Mountaineers had the same number of made field goals (13) as turnovers. Ouch. Kentucky’s first three tourney foes, Hampton, Cincinnati and West Virginia, have averaged just 48.7 points. That’s ridiculous.

In Saturday’s Elite Eight game in Cleveland, though, Kentucky will meet the best team it’s faced all season in 32-5 Notre Dame. The closest comparison would be mid-December foe North Carolina, but the Irish are better than the Tar Heels at the one thing a team will need to excel at to have any hope against the Wildcats — 3-point shooting. Notre Dame ranks second nationally in effective field goal percentage (58.5) thanks in part to its 39.2 percent outside shooting. Of course, whether the Irish can actually defend towers like Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein with just one regular contributor taller than 6-8 is another story.

Speaking of Notre Dame …

Mike Brey’s offense is a thing of beauty. The Irish are headed to their first Elite Eight since 1979 on the strength of an ultra-efficient half-court offense, one that even defensively stout Wichita State had no answer for in the second half of an 81-70 Notre Dame victory.

Over one particularly spectacular four-plus-minute stretch, the Irish broke open a 56-48 game by making seven of eight shots, featuring half-court sets that led to dunks, layups and threes, and all set up by assists. Jerian Grant’s 11 assists included four during this stretch alone, including a no-look dart to Zach Auguste for a layup. Steve Vasturia’s backdoor pass for a Pat Connaughton layup and Auguste’s alley-oop to Demetrius Jackson were nifty, too. With the win, Notre Dame improved to 8-1 on the season against the Sweet 16 field. The Irish are not an elite defensive team by any means, but only Wisconsin and Duke field comparable offenses.

Wisconsin is far more than Frank Kaminsky. The Badgers’ national player of the year-contending center dominates the headlines, but Wisconsin hasn’t won 34 games on Kaminsky alone and it certainly would not have survived North Carolina on Thursday without his supporting cast.

With Kaminsky struggling offensively much of the night, the Tar Heels built and maintained a lead deep into the second half. That changed in a hurry thanks to some clutch shots by Sam Dekker, who scored a career-high 23 points, but also the likes of Zak Showalter and Josh Gasser. In fact, Showalter singlehandedly turned the tide with a layup, steal and another layup over a 13-second span to put the Badgers up 63-60 with 5:55 left. At that point you just knew the No. 1 seed would not relinquish that lead, despite Marcus Paige’s best efforts for UNC down the stretch.

Arizona is itching for another piece of Wisconsin. Sixth-seed Xavier controlled the second-seeded Wildcats for about 33 minutes Thursday. Muskies big man Matt Stainbrook (17 points, 10 rebounds) played at a high level, and Chris Mack’s 1-3-1 zone gave Arizona fits. But Arizona also delivered a very un-Arizona performance for much of the night, allowing Xavier to shoot nearly 50 percent well into the second half, getting outmuscled in the paint and garnering very little offense from top scorers Stanley Johnson and Brandon Ashley.

The Wildcats eventually got the spark they needed from veterans like point guard T.J. McConnell and center Kaleb Tarczewski. They combined for 11 points during a 17-7 Arizona run to put away Xavier 68-60. Don’t expect a similarly flat performance Saturday. Coach Sean Miller admitted afterward that Arizona spent all summer thinking about last year’s Elite Eight overtime loss to Wisconsin, decided in part on a controversial last-second charge call. Miller and his players have presumably been foaming for another shot at the Badgers ever since.

The Gregg Marshall Watch begins. Thursday night’s loss did nothing to diminish Wichita State’s incredible run over the past three seasons — a Final Four, a Sweet 16 and at least 30 wins every season. Which is exactly why the Shockers’ coach figures to be in high demand. Reports surfaced this week that Alabama is prepared to wheel out a Brinks truck to woo Marshall, who’s been at Wichita for eight years, but it seems an unlikely destination. Marshall has turned down more prominent programs before. Shockers fans should still be concerned, but more so if Texas decides to axe Rick Barnes (which remains a possibility).

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.