At the beginning of the NCAA basketball season prognosticators predicted that both No. 2 seed Michigan and No. 8 seed Kentucky could very well be in this position. By the end of the regular season, however, it was only the 28-8 Wolverines who looked like they had the cohesion to pull off a run to the Elite Eight. Michigan had won the regular season Big-10 title, and made it all the way to the conference championship where they lost to Michigan State.
As for 27-10 Kentucky, John Calipari’s team went from preseason No. 1 to completely falling out of the rankings late in the season. A deep run in the SEC tournament, however, that culminated with the Wildcats falling one point short to No. 1 Florida in the championship was just what the Wildcats needed to finally galvanize their young talent when it mattered most heading into the NCAA tournament.
Key Match-Up: Michigan’s front court vs. Kentucky’s front court
With the midseason loss of NBA prospect 6-foot-10, 255-pound forward Mitch McGary on Jan. 7 to injury, Michigan’s big men will look like children compared to the Wildcats’ bigs in the NCAA regional final. Kentucky will march out 7-foot center Jakari Johnson and 6-foot-9, 250-pound forward Julius Randle in an attempt to rule the paint. Michigan was able to overcome similar disadvantages against both Texas in the NCAA tournament round of 32 and Tennessee in the Sweet Sixteen, but neither had a monster the size of Johnson, or a difference-maker like Randle, who averages 15 points and 10 rebounds per game.
Michigan’s Jordan Morgan, a 6-foot-8 forward who will have the unenviable task of containing Johnson, says that the one thing that Michigan’s front court has that Kentucky’s does not have is experience. Morgan and fellow forward, Glenn Robinson III, will use their experience to try to keep moving and not allow Kentucky’s bigs to plant themselves in the paint.
Kentucky coach John Calipari says that his highly talented freshmen have finally surrendered their individual identities and found themselves in the identity of the collective team. This will have to be the case against Michigan if the Wildcats hope to get back to their third Final Four in the last four years. Kentucky will look to pound the ball inside to Randle and get the big man his points. They might also run some inside-out action taking advantage of the hot hand of freshman guard Aaron Harrison, who is shooting 9-15 from three point range for the tournament. One cause for concern for Kentucky is the status of sophomore reserve forward Willie Caulie-Stein. The 7-foot big man,who averages 6.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and nearly three blocks per game, suffered an ankle injury against Louisville that Calipari conceded did not look good at all.
The Wolverines live and die by their long-range shooting. 6-foot-6 sophomore guard Nik Stauskas has shot 47 percent from behind the arc this post season and the Big-10 player of the year is also averaging 17.3 points per game. In the round of 16 against Tennessee, Michigan connected on 11 of 20 attempts for three and shot 55.1 percent overall. If the Wolverines attempt to run anything down low, it will most likely be through Robinson. The forward will be playing out of position at the four spot, but they may try to use his speed and soft touch to keep Kentucky’s big men off balance and force them out to the perimeter.
Both teams come into this match-up red hot. The Wolverines have won 10 of 11 and the Wildcats have won five of six. In the end, I think that the size and talent of Kentucky will simply be too much for Michigan to overcome. Look for the Wildcats to continue playing team basketball and march on to the Final Four, winning by a count of 78-72.
Commentary by Jeremy Mika