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The Cats Are Coming: Examining Kentucky-Michigan In The Elite Eight

Michigan is facing down its fourth straight tournament opponent with double digit losses on the season as 8th seeded Kentucky upset both Wichita State and Louisville on the way to the the Elite Eight.

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Frout Courtin'

The refrain was the same before the last two games: Michigan was going to have its hands full dealing with a big, athletic front court that loves to rebound and bang underneath. Of course, Jordan Morgan responded emphatically in the round of 32, notching his second straight double-double of the tournament.

Friday against an even larger and more dangerous front court, Michigan not only got a lot out of Morgan (15 pts, 7/9 shooting, 7 rebounds), but also from Glenn Robinson III who continues to round into form as a complete player. Robinson was confident early, going right at Jeronne Maymon and contributing to the Tennessee big's quick foul trouble. Robinson finished with 13 points on seven FGAs while adding five rebounds and two assists.

So far in the tournament Michigan has gotten 13.3 points and 5.6 rebounds per game from Robinson and 13.3 points and 9.0 rebounds per game from Morgan. Considering these two were some of the biggest concerns when forecasting postseason success (Robinson effectiveness against post-oriented fours and Morgan's ability to hold his own against bigger front court players), Michigan is in good position even after a game where Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert struggled late offensively.

Naturally, you know where this is going. Michigan's opponent Sunday features a 6'9 freshman in Julius Randal who dominates possessions (using 26.5% of Kentucky possessions) and is top-50 in the nation in both OR% and DR%. Michigan has caught a break with Kentucky seven-footer Willie Cauley-Stein likely unable to participate on Sunday.

Michigan's fate on Sunday rests on its front court once again. Michigan will need Morgan's savvy on the pick and roll, Robinson's ability to attack the defense from anywhere in the halfcourt, and both to help Michigan hold serve on the glass. So basically the same things these two have been doing for weeks.

A Curious Case Of The Yips

Michigan averages nine turnovers per game. Against Tennessee, the Wolverines coughed the ball up 13 times for a TO% of 21.7, much higher than the 7.0% put up against Texas.

More troubling was the nature of Michigan's turnover problem. The Wolverines committed four of those turnovers in the final two minutes of the game, leading to three Tennessee scoring possessions and further contributing to the blown late lead that almost cost Michigan the game.

Prior to this Michigan was scoring with ease, putting up better than 1.4 points per possession in the first half and holding onto a double digit lead through the first ten minutes of the second half. However, Tennessee made its late run and started forcing mistakes. Tennessee isn't even a defensive team known for its ability to force mistakes. On the year Tennessee's defensive TO% is just 16.9%, which is 256th in the nation.

But the length on the outside threw Michigan off and mistakes on inbounds plays cost Michigan (yet again). Considering that, it is fortunate that Michigan won't have to deal with the Louisville press defense — one that wasn't easy for a turnover-averse Michigan team to deal with last year in the title game.

That isn't to say that this trend of late game yips is anything but troubling. Michigan hit the skids late in Big Ten tournament games against Illinois and Ohio State when the offense tightened up late with a lead. Michigan's offense looks as deadly as any in the country when it is dialed in, but with Michigan not only susceptible to cold streaks from the floor but now looking like its capable of allowing a quick rash of turnovers to seriously swing the outcome, it puts more pressure on Michigan's defense.

Against Tennessee, Michigan struggled to make up for those turnovers as the Vols attacked the lane with ease late in the game and shot 58.7% from two-point for the game.

Kentucky is another team that doesn't force turnovers at a high rate, just a 16.0 TO% this year, 300th nationally, but the Cats also feature three athletic wing players who stand 6'6. To put it another way, Kentucky doesn't have the reputation, but it does have the size when it comes to harassing Michigan's offense. If the Wolverines get sloppy trying to pass over and around the Wildcat defense it will put more pressure on Michigan's two point defense and defensive rebounding against a team that is well built to exploit those mismatches.

I've said it before: Michigan can afford an off night on the defensive glass or in ball security and still win as long as its offense is clicking for the most part. If both those areas turn into a struggle for Michigan, the chances of another trip to the Final Four are slim.

Youth Wins The Day (Or Will It Be The Bench?)

Of all the teams left in the tournament as of this writing (before Saturday's Elite Eight games), Michigan and Kentucky are the youngest according to Kenpom's experience metric. The Wolverines rank 330th — just a few spots lower than Arizona — while Kentucky is dead last. The Wildcats' four most used players on the lineup in terms of minute percentage are all freshmen. This contrasts to Michigan's four most used players being three sophomores and one freshman. Whichever team wins will go into the Final Four as the youngest team left.

In other interesting personnel facts, Kentucky is 6th in Kenpom's effective height measure and 1st in average height. Michigan is 215th and 87th respectively. Both teams rely on the starters more than most of the rest of the country. Kentucky is 311th in bench minutes while Michigan is 276th.

Taken together these look like advantages for the Wildcats, but Michigan has routinely gotten important contributions from its limited bench minutes that go primarily to freshman Zak Irvin and sophomore Spike Albrecht. Irvin has chipped in five threes in the last two games and is shooting 42% from outside on the year, providing Michigan with a great floor stretching weapon. Meanwhile, Spike Albrecht is already well known for his ability to come in and make the most of limited game time.

With Cauley-Stein likely out, Kentucky's rotation consists of just six guys that have more than 20% of available minutes this year. Michigan winning the battle of the benches could be a big help to Michigan's chances.


Kenpom has Michigan as the one point favorite in this game, and the Wolverines are 9th in the overall adjusted rankings. Kentucky is one spot behind, having moved up from 17th when the tournament started thanks in part to beating Kenpom's number three and number five team in the last two games.