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BIG BLUE SHOWDOWN
March 29, 2014
By Anthony J, Fredella
INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana - It's an all-blue Midwest Regional final tomorrow, when the Michigan Wolverines take on the Kentucky Wildcats. Michigan advanced to the final after holding off a furious rally by the Tennessee Volunteers and coming away victorious 73-71. Kentucky moved on to the Elite Eight after a impressive rally of their own to get past arch rival Louisville 74-69. And that has now set the stage for a matchup between the Big Blue from Ann Arbor and Big Blue Nation from Lexington.
Michigan, if you recall, went all the way to the title game last season before bowing out to eventual champion Louisville. And while the Wolverines were led by two future NBA draft picks in PG Trey Burke and SG Tim Hardaway, Jr., Coach John Beilein's squad was by no means a two-man show. Carrying the load in the paint last season was emerging freshman sensation PF Mitch McGary who, after his NCAA dominance, decided to return to school for his sophomore campaign. Add in returning SF Glenn Robinson, III, PF Jon Horford, SG Nik Stauskas, PF Jordan Morgan, SF Caris LeVert and PG Spike Albrecht, and the Wolverines were certainly looking up again for the 2013-2014 season. And with a stellar recruiting class that included PG Derrick Walton and SG Zak Irvin, Wolverine Nation was once again smelling Final Four. But high expectations quickly transformed into dear concern when McGary, a preseason all-american consideration, went out for the season with a back injury. Standing at 5-3 and losing its best player for the year, most teams would have mailed it in the rest of the way and chalked it up to bad luck. But not the mighty Wolverines. After a heartbreaking loss at home on December 14th to then #1 ranked Arizona 72-70, Michigan ran off 10 straight wins, and sent a message to the rest of college hoops world that they weren't going to go away quietly. In fact, the Wolverines won the ultra-rugged Big Ten Conference after posting a 15-3 record, and made it all the way to the conference tournament championship game before being clipped by red hot Michigan St. 69-55. But that loss has not been a setback for the Wolverines, who have looked dominant in the NCAA Tournament after receiving the #2 seed in the Midwest Region.
But up next may just be the hottest team in the country - Kentucky. The Wildcats' season has been well documented here on StraightHoops all season long. We expressed our outrage at the preseason #1 ranking and all the "undefeated" talk in 40 AND NO. But then we praised the young Cats for their December victory over Louisville in STATEMENT. And recently, we wrote about the ups and downs for UK heading into the the SEC Tournament in UNDEFEATED TO UNRANKED? But our position with Kentucky has been the same since October and that is, Coach John Calipari has an immensely talented group of young players who, if they can get past all of the hype and learn how to play team basketball, can beat any team in the country on any given night. However, if they believe their press clipping, play a one-on-one style of ball, and act like children when calls and plays do not go their way, well, then they can lose to just about any team in the country on any given night as well. But things have certainly looked up for Kentucky since being blown out in Gainesville by the #1 Florida Gators on March 8th in the regular season finale. In fact, since that time, UK is 5-1, with victories over LSU, Kansas State, previously unbeaten Wichita State and again over arch rival Louisville last night. The Cats also reached the title game of the SEC Tournament, and almost knocked off Florida, before falling to the Gators for the 3rd time 61-60. But the loss seemed to give the youngsters much needed motivation, inspiring them that they could, in fact, hang with the best in the land and so far, they have.
Tomorrow's matchup is a college hoops fanatic's dream: two high profile programs, two strong fan bases, two phenomenal coaches, and a whole host of stars and future NBA players. The most interesting individual matchups, however, will include how Michigan defends the interior. A small team, the Wolverines' tallest starter is 6'8" Jordan Morgan. Kentucky does not start anyone under 6'6". At 6'9", PF Julius Randle's athleticism and ability to get to the basket strong is going to be a problem. And at 7'0", C Dakari Johnson was extremely instrumental in the victory over the Ville last night. How Coach Beilein chooses to defend those two guys will be a critical issue in whether or not Michigan can compete tomorrow. Moreover, if 7"0" C Willie Cauley-Stein's ankle is okay, and he's able to go, Michigan will certainly have their hands full inside.
In that same respect, however, Michigan has a host of talented and athletic wing players that will cause matchup problems for the Wildcats as well. Robinson, Stauskas, Irvin and LeVert are all 6'6" and all can handle the ball on the perimeter, shoot from the outside, penetrate to the basket, and get up on the rim. If Kentucky goes big, which they will at times, Michigan can, and will, exploit their matchup advantages as well.
This should be an up and down battle with a lot of outside shooting and a lot of high flying. Both teams are averaging around 75.0-76.0 ppg, and both are giving up around 64.0-65.0 ppg. This game should definitely get into the mid-70's for both squads, which I think gives the advantage to Kentucky. While I've seen both teams struggle to score at times this season, UK appears to have that problem solved as of late. Against Michigan State in the Big Ten title game, however, I watched the Wolverines' offense strain to score, oftentimes passing the ball around until a turnover was created or a forced outside shot was missed miserably. That image sticks into my mind when I think about tomorrow's game. Because of that, and because of UK's interior advantage (whether or not Cauley-Stein laces them up), I see UK moving on the Final Four and silencing the critics is a remarkable fashion.