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Big Dance Preview: (8) Kentucky Wildcats

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Michigan takes on the Kentucky Wildcats with a spot in the Final Four on the line.

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Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

Date: Sunday, March 30

Time: 5:05 ET

Place: Lucas Oil Stadium--Indianapolis, Ind.



For two straight games, people have been predicting the Wolverines would get clocked on the interior by Texas and Tennessee, teams with dangerous frontcourters. While that did happen against Texas, the Longhorns couldn't do enough elsewhere -- like shoot, or prevent Michigan from shooting well -- to make it a serious game.

As for the Tennessee game, Michigan dominated most of the way until the offense stopped coming with approximately 10 minutes left to go; in the end, however, the rebounding battle was fairly close to even (28-26, UT). Jordan McRae and Josh Richardson went off, but Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon scored a combined 13 points (two for Maymon) on 6-of-13 shooting.

Like Jordan Morgan said after the game (no, he did not say "butt," obviously), Michigan's front court, Morgan especially, has come up huge against what have appeared to be serious mismatches.

In case you were wondering, the senior from Detroit has averaged 13.3 ppg and 9 rpg in the tournament thus far. That is ridiculous, especially for a guy who started the season on track for a sad senior year fade into obscurity. Fortunately for him and Michigan fans everywhere, just the opposite has happened. Who knew Jordan Morgan would be Michigan's leading scorer in a Sweet 16 win one day?

Regardless, here Michigan sits, one step away from another Final Four. Once again, they'll face a squad with plenty of frontcourt brawn and ability.

If Tennessee was Texas 2.0, Kentucky is 3.0. Michigan will have its hands full--after all, UK did just knock off the defending champions.

Season So Far

I already did a post looking ahead to this very matchup earlier this week, so I'll just reproduce that section here:

For most teams, a 26-10 (12-6) record and a second place conference finish would be considered a great finish. For Kentucky, however, it could be considered somewhat of a disappointment, especially after immeasurable preseason hype based on yet another monster freshman class.

Despite playing in what many would consider a weak conference, the Wildcats boasted the No. 2 strongest schedule, with a nonconference schedule featuring Michigan State, Baylor, North Carolina and Louisville. UK struggled against the RPI top 25 (1-5) and the RPI top 50 (4-6), but went 10-3 against the 51-100 squads on the schedule.

UK's best wins of the season were: Louisville (No. 19); Michigan's opponent on Friday, Tennessee (No. 41) ; Providence (No. 43); and Missouri (No. 47).

Then, UK went ahead and knocked off one of the two pre-tournament 4-seed darlings, Louisville, in a classic game. Despite a disastrous start to the game, in which the Cardinals got out to an 18-5 lead and the Wildcats looked completely rattled, they found their rhythm later in the half and went into the break down only three.

Louisville upped their lead to seven with 5:30 left to play, and it seemed like they were ready to lob one or two final haymakers to knock the hypertalented but young Wildcats out.

Alas for Rick Pitino and Co., that was not the case. Aaron Harrison buried a triple with 40 seconds left to give UK a 70-68 lead. With a chance to tie at the other end, Louisville's Wayne Blackshear split a pair of free throws--the Cardinals will look back at this game and kick themselves vis-a-vis their uncashed opportunities at the stripe that wasn't so charitable to them last night.

So, if Friday night's pair of games at Lucas Oil proved anything, it's that no lead is safe. The 'Cats, being the young bunch that they are, are prone to bouts of disorganization. Louisville's zone gave UK major trouble; you think we'll see some 1-3-1 tomorrow? Yes, yes we will.

Sure, Louisville shooting a wretched 13-of-23 from the free throw line was a major factor in determining the outcome, but give UK credit: they battled back after Louisville really took it to them early on.

It wasn't necessarily an efficient day for UK's freshmen stars, but the Harrison brothers scored a combined 29 points (albeit on 29 percent shooting). Michigan was fortunate UT's Maymon got in foul trouble, but they can't on that happening again, especially with respect to Julius Randle, who notched another double-double (15 points, 12 rebounds).

Filling in for the injured Willie Cauley-Stein (he left the game in the first half with an ankle injury), C Dakari Johnson came up huge. Johnson logged 31 minutes, easily his season high, and scored 15 points, tied for his season high. Johnson had not scored in double digits since a Jan. 28 loss at LSU.

But, as this CBS segment notes, Johnson might not be as strategically important against a perimeter-oriented team like Michigan, so Randle at the 5 could get a lot of run for UK.


Again, I already hashed this out earlier this week, so here's another copy and paste with a newsy bit afterward:

Outside of sophomores Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress, the Wildcats are powered by a quartet of hypertalented freshmen. Aaron (14.1 ppg) and Andrew Harrison (10.1 ppg) provide plenty of offensive punch, while shooting 34 and 36 percent from three, respectively.

Big man Julius Randle leads the team in points (15.1 ppg) and is overall UK's most dangerous player--he also pulls in a whopping 12.5 ppg, using his 6-foot-8, 250 pound NBA-ready frame to bully his way into the paint and through defenders all game.

The 6-foot-6 forward from Rochester Hills, Mich., James Young, is by far UK's most frequent three-point gunner, with 222 attempts on the season made at a 34.2 percent clip.

But wait, there's more! The aforementioned Cauley-Stein gets lost in the shuffle, which is pretty impressive for a 7-footer. Nonetheless, he shoots a sterling 60 percent from the field, naturally all around the basket. He's also a rim-protector, as he ranks first in the SEC in block percentage (20th nationally).

Really, I could go on and on. The questions about this team have never been about talent; it's tough to say that anyone in the country, even the far more experienced Michigan State squad, has more pure talent. But, of course, pure talent doesn't always put up banners.

If Michigan does get by Tennessee to face these Wildcats, there will be mismatches, most obviously on the inside. With that said, Michigan has experience (a strange thing to say about a team powered mostly by underclassmen) and as far as strategy goes, one would be hard pressed to give the edge to the opponent in a game in which John Beilein is roaming the sidelines, performing magic in every situation save inbound plays (oddly).

However, UK is two wins away from putting up another banner in Rupp Arena. To get there, they'll have to get through a Louisville squad that is still the champion until someone knocks them out of this year's tournament.

So, the newsy bit, of course, is that Willie Cauley-Stein is listed as doubtful for tomorrow's game. UK will miss him far more on the defensive end than on offense, where they have plenty of firepower already. Without him in the lineup, UK loses an excellent rim protector and a fairly mobile (for a 7-footer) guy to harass Michigan's pick and roll plays. Now, UK has to send either the not nearly as mobile Johnson out on the hedge or Randle.

Neither scenario is ideal for UK, as Randle playing defense beyond the arc means less energy for him to do what he does on the offensive end. Michigan's best defense on Randle might in fact be it's pick and roll offense.

Game Keys

  • Again, smart early. Even without Cauley-Stein, Michigan cannot afford either Jordan Morgan or Jon Horford picking up a cheap one or two early; frankly, this is more important for Morgan, as the dropoff from him to Horford is pretty significant.
  • Spread them out and slow it down. It's unreasonable to expect Michigan to put up another virtuoso offensive performance like Friday night's first half against UT. But, hit a few shots early and those pretty dump downs to a wide open Morgan for a dunk should be there once again.
  • Patience. I wasn't keeping count, but there were definitely some head-scratcher shots from certain Wolverines, with one corner three from Caris LeVert sticking out in my mind in particular. Nik Stauskas also forced things a bit en route to a 3-of-9 start from the field against UT. Michigan will get its looks against this Kentucky squad, there's no need to give UK free points via bad shot long rebounds.


Once again, I shrug my shoulders and say flip a coin, friendo.

Like UT, Kentucky isn't a tremendous three-point shooting team (33.6 percent during conference play, good for 214th nationally), but they make up for it with size and talent that wreaks havoc inside the arc, whether in transition or otherwise. The downside to that lightning quick attack is that they do turn it over a decent amount, as they carry a middling 18.2 turnover percentage this season.

On the other hand, as good as Michigan has been at not turning it over these past couple of seasons, they've been uncharacteristically sloppy against Wofford and Tennessee. If that happens again, it's going to be difficult to overcome, barring another hilariously on point effort from beyond the arc (which, at this stage, isn't even that surprising anymore no matter how crazy the percentages).

UK is young: they'll take bad shots, play too fast, look completely lost and turn it over in stretches. On the other hand, they have the talent to look like the No. 1 team in the country for stretches at a time, too. Michigan needs a consistent 40 minutes this time around, not the 30 and chaos they put forth against UT.

Forget about seeding once again; like UT, Kentucky is a far more capable team than their seed indicates. With that said, if Michigan continues to shoot the ball well while also returning to their turnover-phobic ways, this should be another win.

But, predictions are useless, so I'll just leave you with this:

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