CLEVELAND — There are those who have long since proclaimed the 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats as one of the great defensive teams in college basketball history.
So it seems appropriate that to earn a Final Four berth and continue their drive toward a perfect 40-0, the Cats will have to subdue perhaps the best offensive team in the country.
Notre Dame (32-5) earned its shot at No. 1 Kentucky (37-0) Thursday night with an emphatic 81-70 victory over Wichita State in the NCAA Tournament round of 16 in Quicken Loans Arena.
In earning their school's first trip to the Elite Eight since 1979, the Fighting Irish shot 75 percent from the floor (18-of-24) and 75 percent from three-point range (6-of-8) in the second half.
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A team of iron men, Notre Dame starters accounted for all but six of their team's points and played 182 of the game's 200 minutes.
Sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson hit back-to-back treys in the second half to ignite the game- deciding run and finished with 20 points. Swingman Pat Connaughton (16 points), center Zach Auguste (15) and guard Steve Vasturia (15) also hit double figures.
Star point guard Jerian Grant scored only nine but brilliantly directed the Notre Dame offense with 11 assists versus just two turnovers.
"There's nobody you can cheat off of," Wichita State Coach Gregg Marshall said afterward. "Each one of those five guys, and they all play a lot of minutes, is dangerous."
If college basketball this season has a version of the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs, it is Notre Dame.
The Irish play one post man (Auguste) surrounded by four perimeter players who all can stroke the three.
When the offense gets humming, Notre Dame whips the ball around the three-point line for the best open shot or sends cutters through an open lane for back-door layups.
On Saturday, Notre Dame's offensive precision and emphasis on perimeter players (one starter taller than 6-5) will come face to face with Kentucky's defensive ferocity and length (all starters taller than 6-6).
"We're confident in our offense," Vasturia said. "We know we've got a lot of weapons. We know we can score."
Going into Thursday's game, Notre Dame was 34th in the country in made three-pointers a game (averaging eight). The Irish were scoring 78.2 points a contest. According to the Pomeroy rankings, Notre Dame was third in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency.
"We can spread people out; our spacing has really been good," Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey said. "And when you have a guy like (the 6-5) Connaughton as your second big guy, it's a very, very difficult matchup. And we're able to play that way because then he can go and get 10, 11 rebounds from the undersized four spot."
After hanging 81 on Wichita State, Notre Dame is 19-0 when it scores 80 points or more.
As impressive as Notre Dame's offensive metrics are, Kentucky's defensive numbers might be even more gaudy.
Going into the West Virginia game, UK was allowing just 53.9 ppg and holding opposing three-point shooters to 27.4 percent. The Cats were number one in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to Pomeroy.
Of course, Notre Dame has to guard Kentucky, too — plus try to keep the Wildcats off the glass. That should put a load of responsibility on the 6-10 Auguste.
"I'm gonna take that challenge head-on. I'm going to take that personally," Auguste said. "I've played some great bigs. We played the best big, (Duke's) Jahlil Okafor. I've learned a lot, gotten much better from guarding him."
There's a case to be made that Notre Dame will enter Saturday's meeting with Kentucky the more "tested" team. After beating Wichita State, the Fighting Irish are 8-1 this season against teams that made the NCAA tourney round of 16.
After vanquishing West Virginia, UK is 4-0.
A team that won two out of three from Duke this season and at Louisville and North Carolina is not apt to play scared against Kentucky.
"They're just another basketball team like us," Fighting Irish freshman forward Bonzie Colson (six points versus Wichita State) said. "They tie their shoes the same way we tie our shoes. It's nothing different."
On Saturday, we'll see whether defense wins championships — or at least gets you to the Final Four — or whether exceptional offense is the way to slay college basketball's Goliath.
This should be fun.