RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — It’s finally time to award the first spots in the Final Four.
And for the four teams chasing those tickets Saturday, it’s another shot to break through an often frustrating roadblock in the regional finals.
Kansas lost in the Elite Eight last year. So did Oregon, which won the first NCAA Tournament in 1939 but hasn’t pushed past the final eight since.
While those two teams meet in the Midwest Region final in Kansas City, Missouri, the West final in San Jose, California, features two teams – Gonzaga and Xavier – who have never won in this round.
Kansas coach Bill Self called it “the hardest game in the tournament.”
“There’s so much emphasis on the road to the Final Four,” Self said Friday. “It’s almost like the Final Four could be the equivalent of the national championship 30 years ago, with the type of intensity and the type of publicity it gets. … If you get beat in this game, you come just that close to getting to the goal.”
Kansas (31-4) has had the most success of that quartet, though there’s been plenty of frustration, too. The Jayhawks, the Midwest’s No. 1 seed, won the national title under Self in 2008 and went to the title game in 2012. But along the way, there have been four Elite Eight losses under Self – three coming despite carrying a 1-seed.
Kansas is chasing its first Final Four since that 2012 run.
Oregon (32-5), the Midwest’s 3-seed, is in the Elite Eight for the fourth time since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. The Ducks have lost their last three, including to Kansas in 2002.
In the West, both 1-seed Gonzaga (35-1) and 11th-seeded Xavier (24-13) are each in the regional finals for a third time.
“All the games we feel the pressure to move on, to advance,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said. “This one, a little bit more because that Final Four is the goal of everybody.”
Here are things to know about the NCAA Tournament’s second week:
HEADLINING NAMES: The Midwest final features a national player of the year candidate in Kansas’ Frank Mason III and a preseason Associated Press All-American in Oregon’s Dillon Brooks. Mason, a 5-foot-11 senior, is averaging 20.9 points on 49 percent shooting, while Brooks – a 6-7 junior – is averaging 16.3 points.
LEGACY: Gonzaga’s Few has built a consistent winner in the Pacific Northwest, though that Final Four is the glaring omission from the resume. Still, Few has routinely refused to be consumed by the pursuit.
“It would be awesome for the school and for the Spokane community to be able to feel good about and hang their hat on,” Few said. “But my legacy is going to be about other things, at least as far as I’m concerned.”
SUMNER’S ABSENCE: No one expected Xavier to be here, especially after losing point guard Edmund Sumner to a season-ending knee injury in January. The Musketeers also lost six straight before regrouping to reach the Big East Tournament championship game and now an Elite Eight after upsetting 2-seed Arizona on Thursday night.
“We’re all tough guys,” junior guard J.P. Macura said. “We stuck together. And we’ve been playing tough together. And we’re not really backing down from anybody. And if you have that mentality, you can beat a lot of teams.”
BLUEBOOD BRACKET: Kentucky beat UCLA in the South Region semifinals on Friday night in Memphis, Tennessee, to claim a matchup of teams with a combined 19 NCAA titles. Now the second-seeded Wildcats are preparing for another marquee name in 1-seed North Carolina, which cruised past Butler, on Sunday.
A NEW SEC TOURNAMENT: The Southeastern Conference enters the regional finals standing alone among leagues. The SEC has three of the eight teams still standing with Kentucky, Florida and South Carolina – and is assured at least one Final Four team considering the Gators and Gamecocks play Sunday in the East final.
FINALLY, AN OVERTIME: The Gators’ 84-83 win against Wisconsin on Friday night on Chris Chiozza’s running 3-pointer marked the first overtime game of the tournament. And that came only after Badgers guard Zak Showalter hit an off-balance 3 with 2.5 seconds left in regulation to force the extra period.
FAREWELL: It didn’t take long after UCLA’s loss to Kentucky for star freshman point guard Lonzo Ball to say he was moving on from the college game. He had been considered a likely one-and-done NBA prospect all year and called Friday’s loss “my final game for UCLA.”
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