If Kentucky wants to make history, the Wildcats are going to have to do it the hard way. They are exactly where they expected to be -- 38-0 and two wins away from becoming the first undefeated national champion since Indiana in 1976 -- but John Calipari's kids will arrive in Indianapolis looking a little more human, the cloak of invincibility a little frayed at the edges.
Notre Dame saw to that in the Midwest Regional final, pushing Kentucky to the wire before losing on a couple of foul shots with six seconds left. The Irish didn't win, but they showed the way to beat Kentucky. Spread the floor to force the Wildcats to use every single inch of their amazing length on defense, don't be afraid to attack the basket when the driving lanes open up, shoot lights out from distance and fight tooth-and-nail on defense for every rebound, every loose ball.
It takes a special team to actually execute that formula against Kentucky, and as the basketball gods would have it, there will be three special teams waiting for the Wildcats at Lucas Oil Stadium -- Wisconsin (35-3) in the semifinals, and the winner between Duke (33-4) and Michigan State (27-11) in the championship game.
Looking ahead to the game against Wisconsin, which is a rematch of last year's one-point Kentucky win in the national semifinals, Willie Cauley-Stein said he's grateful the Wildcats have a week to prepare. "Especially since we're playing Wisconsin," the 7-footer said. "Great team.
"The way they play together is the best in the country. We had one day to prepare for Notre Dame. That's why we couldn't stop them."
Precise passing and execution by the Irish created driving lanes through the Kentucky defense that allowed Notre Dame to equal the Wildcats in points in the paint (40-40) and only a brilliant 25-point performance by Karl-Anthony Towns saved them. Wisconsin is just as sharp as the Irish in terms of offensive efficiency but bigger and more physical.
The Badgers' inside-outside combination of Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker combined for 56 points in their West Regional victory over tough, tough Arizona. So expect a battle just as thrilling as last year's matchup or the Kentucky-Notre Dame game.
On the other side of the bracket, Duke is the clear favorite to reach the title game, and if the Wildcats manage to get past Wisconsin, well, let's just say the national television audience will go through the roof. That's CBS' dream matchup.
But Michigan State has proved it can't be written off easily. The seventh-seeded Spartans survived the busted bracket in the East to join three No. 1 seeds. And they did it a year after coach Tom Izzo's 18-year run of having every class he ever recruited reach at least one Final Four end last year in the East Regional at Madison Square Garden. His veteran core of Travis Trice, Branden Dawson and Denzel Valentine has provided fierce leadership, and there is quality depth coming off the bench.
Duke is not nearly as deep, but the Blue Devils starters resemble Kentucky's in terms of sheer talent and pro potential, starting with possible No. 1 draft pick Jahlil Okafor, who had an off day in the South Regional win over Gonzaga but was picked up by emerging freshman star Justise Winslow and an excellent backcourt of Tyus Jones, Matt Jones and Quinn Cook.
Kentucky has reached the final leg of its ascent of the NCAA's Mount Everest, but if the Wildcats want to join that 1976 Indiana team and UCLA coach John Wooden's four undefeated champions among the all-time best, they must find another gear, something special, to set foot on the summit.