NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - In an NCAA tournament filled with stunning upsets and unlikely party crashers, the East region has provided an oasis of sanity.
Kentucky. North Carolina.
College basketball bluebloods whose gyms are ringed with national championship banners and whose fan bases are disappointed any time a season ends without confetti and celebratory newspaper fronts on the first Monday night in April.
The expectations are as impossible as the numbers are eye-popping.
Two of the sport’s winningest programs have combined for more than 4,000 victories _ including 209 in the NCAA tournament _ 31 Final Four appearances and a dozen national titles.
Talk about star power.
“Yes, the names on the front: Kentucky and North Carolina, wow. The history of these programs, wow,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari. “But I don’t think (my players) are worried about that and I am certainly not.”
The winner meets Connecticut next Saturday in the Final Four at Houston.
The current crop of Tar Heels presents enough worries on its own.
North Carolina (27-9) took off in January after coach Roy Williams put freshman point guard Kendall Marshall in charge of running its high-octane offense. The second-seeded Tar Heels have ripped off 12 victories in their last 13 games, the latest an 81-63 mauling of Marquette in the regional semifinals on Friday.
Kentucky (28-8) needed more time to get it together.
A season after super freshmen John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins helped Calipari revive the program, their replacements _ Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Brandon Knight _ struggled to find an identity.
At one point the Wildcats lost six straight games decided by five points or less, including a 75-73 loss in Chapel Hill in December.
“Both teams are drastically different,” Williams said. “I think that both teams were very young and still very young, but I think the experiences that we’ve gained have made both of us a much better team.”