By Matt Norlander, CBS Sports
(CBS Sports) Kansas State last made the Final Four in 1964.
Loyola-Chicago was there most recently a year before that, in 1963, when it won the national title.
On Saturday in the South Regional final, the schools will play each other, an improbable No. 9 seed and a Cinderella No. 11. One will finally get back to college basketball’s ultimate weekend. It’s a story decades in the making, something only college basketball could provide.
Heading to the Final Four out of the top left corner of the bracket will either be a 31-5 Ramblers program that has captured the hearts of America thanks to Sister Jean, or it will be a K-State team that was picked eighth in the Big 12 in the preseason and just knocked off Kentucky, 61-58, for the first time in program history. What we have Saturday night is the first 9 vs. 11 seed in the 80-year history of the event. The 20 combined seed total is the highest in an Elite Eight game, shattering the record of 15 in the modern era (since tourney expanded in 1985).
Which makes it the most unlikely Elite Eight game in college basketball history.
This 2018 NCAA Tournament is outrageous. And incredible. Its unpredictability keeps it extraordinary every year. There is always a weird way the bracket cramps to give us outcomes almost nobody — and in this case, maybe quite literally not one human — thought possible.
Kansas State shirked patterns and trends to upset No. 5 Kentucky, making Catlanta its own. With an overwhelming Big Blue Nation contingent on hand at Atlanta’s Philips Arena, K-State battled through an uneven whistle and overcame a late Kentucky push to make its first Elite Eight since 2010.
Kentucky took its first Sweet 16 loss in the John Calipari era. His initial laments about being placed in a tough region wound up coming back to haunt, as UK was done in by a similar breed of cat. K-State’s top-15 defense kept Kentucky’s anemic offense from hitting a rhythm. What’s worse, Kentucky shot 23-for-37 from the foul line.
Done in by free throws.
Calipari’s experienced that in the NCAA Tournament before.
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Kentucky’s now 9-1 all time against Kansas State. Bruce Weber, who guided Illinois to a national title game 13 years ago, is a game away from getting back. He’s done it with a faceless roster and a fanbase that’s wanted him out for three years. Kansas State fans have to grin and bear this. The Wildcats haven’t defeated any of the remaining three Big 12 teams in the tournament (Kansas, Texas Tech, West Virginia), but that doesn’t matter now.
This team took out Creighton when it wasn’t widely picked to do so in the 8/9 game. Then it played UMBC and had the world rooting against it. On Thursday night, even against a weaker-than-normal Kentucky team, not many thought K-State and Weber would scheme their way past a Kentucky team that was looking as good as it had been all year.
But here it is. Now Loyola awaits. Saturday’s regional final in Atlanta won’t offer up mainstream powers or traditional attractions — except the fundamental pull of a tournament that births upsets and Cinderellas, dark horses and beautiful disasters. It took 38 years for the 64/68-team tournament era to give us an Elite Eight this preposterous.
Who knows when we get it again?
So don’t bemoan the fact that Kentucky won’t be playing or that this section of the bracket — that had Virginia, Cincinnati, Tennessee, Arizona, Kentucky and Miami — won’t give us any of those top six seeds. Chaos has always been a feature, not a bug, of the first weekend of the tournament.
Now it’s a requirement for the later rounds. This game ensures that for the seventh time in as many seasons a team seeded seventh or lower will make the Final Four. Here’s the list:
2011: Butler (8)
2013: Wichita State (9)
2014: Connecticut (7), Kentucky (8)
2015: Michigan State (7)
2016: Syracuse (10)
2017: South Carolina (7)
2018: Kansas State or Loyola (and potentially Florida State and Syracuse)
A pattern has taken grip, yet we’re still getting something unprecedented. We love the NCAA Tournament for the big moments, the big stars, but also for getting the things we’ve never seen before. The South Regional is historic. It’s given us UMBC over Virginia, Loyola winning three games by a total of four points and two ridiculous comebacks by Nevada to reach the Sweet 16. Now it’s Ramblers vs. Wildcats for a trip to the Final Four.
One team will get to continue an unforgettable story. But before we even get to that point, it’s pretty cool to take in what’s already gone down and realize that this 2018 NCAA Tournament is already among the all-timers.