How No. 3 seed Notre Dame and No. 1 Kentucky match up:
Mike Brey has called Steve Vasturia Notre Dame's "baby-faced assassin." The 6-foot-5 sophomore (9.9 points, 40.6 percent three-point percentage) has a knack for making big shots. The Medford, N.J., product is part of Notre Dame's four-guard starting lineup. Vasturia is known for his meticulous defensive preparation and often draws the opponent's top scorer.
In the NCAA Tournament, Kentucky's Trey Lyles has lived up to John Calipari's designation as the Wildcats' "X-factor." Through three NCAA games, Lyles is UK's leading scorer (11.7) and rebounder (8.0). Against Notre Dame, the 6-10 Lyles will have to show he can defend a perimeter player — but the Fighting Irish will have to show they can guard Lyles with a smaller defender as well.
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At 6-5, Notre Dame's Pat Connaughton is one of the more distinctive players in college basketball. Essentially working as an undersized four man, the Arlington, Mass., product leads Notre Dame in rebounding (7.4) and blocked shots (36) while also scoring 12.6 points a game. A 42.6 percent three-point shooter, Connaughton helps Notre Dame spread the court and draw opposing big men away from the goal.
After Kentucky's beat-down of West Virginia, John Calipari lamented that Karl-Anthony Towns was not as "engaged" with the UK team as normal. Against WVU, Towns got in foul trouble, played only 13 minutes and did not score a field goal (0-for-3). On paper, Notre Dame should have no defensive answer for the 6-11 Towns in the low post. Kentucky needs a big bounce-back game from the Piscataway, N.J., product Saturday.
Quietly, Notre Dame's Zach Auguste (12.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg) has had a standout season. At 6-10, 240 pounds, the Marlborough, Mass., product is the only "big" in the Notre Dame starting lineup. For the Irish to pull the upset, Auguste must effectively battle Kentucky's mammoth front line.
UK's Willie Cauley-Stein has averaged eight points and 7.7 rebounds so far in the NCAA Tournament. This will be the 7-foot Kansan's first appearance in the Elite Eight, as an ankle injury in the 2014 round of 16 sidelined him for the rest of last year's NCAA Tournament. If Cauley-Stein's freakish athleticism allows him to cover Notre Dame perimeter players it could be a huge key for UK.
Notre Dame's Demetrius Jackson (20 points Thursday night) hit back-to-back three-pointers in the second half of the round-of-16 victory over Wichita State that ignited ND's game-winning run. The 6-1 sophomore from Mishawaka, Ind., averages 12.6 points and is effective off the bounce and as a jump shooter (43.2 percent three-point range).
Kentucky's Aaron Harrison has made a combined five of 10 three-point shots in UK's NCAA Tournament wins over Cincinnati and West Virginia. The 6-6 sophomore, however, dislocated a finger on his left (non-shooting) hand in the victory over WVU. Will it affect him Saturday? If the game is close, UK is apt to need Harrison's clutch shooting.
Notre Dame's Jerian Grant (16.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 6.7 assists) is one of the best point guards in the country. The 6-5 senior, the son of former Oklahoma star and NBA player Harvey Grant, did not shoot well vs. Wichita State (3-for-8). However, he ran the Irish offense expertly with 11 assists vs. only two turnovers. Grant has played all 125 minutes in Notre Dame's three NCAA tourney games.
UK's Andrew Harrison has 15 assists vs. only four turnovers in Kentucky's six (three SEC, three NCAA) postseason tournament contests. The 6-6 Harrison is 0-for-4 on three-point shots in UK's last two NCAA games. If he draws the defensive assignment on Grant, can Harrison contain the Notre Dame star without requiring teammates to help — and leave three-point shooters open?
Advantage: Notre Dame
V.J. Beachem, a 6-8 sophomore from Fort Wayne, Ind., has been Notre Dame's top reserve (6.1 ppg, 41.6 percent three-point shooting) for most of the season. However, in tournament play, Bonzie Colson, a 6-5, 226-pound freshman out of New Bedford, Mass., has been the most effective Irish reserve. Colson had 17 points against Duke in the ACC Tournament semifinals and contributed six to Notre Dame's win over Wichita State.
The best news for Kentucky against West Virginia may have been Devin Booker making shots. Shaking out of a 5-for-19 slump, the 6-6 Booker went 5-for-8 and made two three-pointers in five attempts. Backup big men Dakari Johnson (12 points, six rebounds) and Marcus Lee (four points, five rebounds) were active against the Mountaineers. Point guard Tyler Ulis struggled with his shot (0-for-4) but had four assists and no turnovers against the WVU press.
In a close game, Notre Dame could be at an advantage. The Fighting Irish are 7-3 this season in games decided by five points or less (UK is 2-0 in such contests). Notre Dame has a rich basketball identity as a giant killer with 10 all-time wins over AP No. 1-ranked teams. Most famously, the Irish snapped UCLA's 88-game winning steak in 1974.
Kentucky is now three victories from completing a perfect season and could be drawing strength from being so close to making history. However, the Wildcats appeared to expend a lot of emotion in responding to brash West Virginia pregame chatter. Are the Cats ripe for a letdown against a more dangerous foe?
Advantage: Notre Dame