Once again, in the crucible that is the NCAA Tournament, the Kentucky Wildcats have found what it takes to get to the Final Four. This is perhaps the most unlikely Final Four ever for Kentucky, although the 2011 Wildcats might have something to say about that. Unlikely or not, the Wildcats victory over a tough Michigan Wolverines squad in the third barn burner for UK in a row culminates in John Calipari's third trip to a Final Four in his five seasons at Kentucky.
Once again, much respect to Michigan. They did everything they could do to win, but just came up a basket short this time, and for the second game in a row, a late Aaron Harrison three was the dagger that did in Kentucky's foe. Great season for a strong and valiant Michigan team.
This game was a thing of beauty from an offensive standpoint, but neither team will want to enshrine this performance in their defensive hall of fame. Kentucky and Michigan are both good offensive teams, as this tournament has shown, but neither of them is as strong defensively as their respective coaches would like. Michigan has at least a plausible excuse — they lack size and depth on the front line. Kentucky's only excuse is that they are young, but then again, outscoring your opponent with offensive brilliance is just as viable a strategy as shutting them down with defense.
This was an offensive tour-de-force for the Wildcats. Kentucky wound up with an offensive efficiency of almost 132 points per 100 possessions, fourth best OE of the year. The other teams Kentucky put up 130+ OE's were teams like UT Arlington, Belmont, and Northern Kentucky. Michigan was much the best team to receive this kind of game from UK.
Free throw shooting was one spot that, for the first time in three games, let the Wildcats down. They only shot eleven free throws, but missed five of them.
I thought Kentucky did a really good job on Nik Stauskas. Stauskas is a very difficult player to guard with unlimited range and significantly underrated athleticism. Holding him to 6-14 shooting was an amazing feat.
Kentucky has to get better guarding the pick and roll. I though Michigan's P&R offense was very effective.
Kentucky eventually won the battle of the boards convincingly, but they gave away too many early offensive rebounds to Michigan, which was in large part responsible for getting Kentucky into that ten point hole in the first half.
Kentucky still has trouble switching cleanly, too often winding up leaving a man unguarded at the rim. I know sometimes that is an intentional trap, but sometimes it's just as clearly confusion. I thought UK had way too many defensive breakdowns.
When you shoot 51% from the field and 63% from the arc and still wind up winning by only two points, you know you've been in a wild one.
Turnovers were too high. Yes, UK was under 20%, but just barely.
Defensive rebounding was the worst it has been since the Alabama game in Rupp Arena back on March 4th.
Remember we were talking about assists — figure this one out — Kentucky assisted on less than 26% of it's made baskets, and yet wind up with an OE of 132. How does that make sense? I'll tell you — prodigious individual talent.
Marcus Lee gets the game ball. Yes, I know there are others just as worthy, including Young, Randle, Poythress, and Aaron Harrison. But Lee's performance was special. We all knew he was good, but nothing he has done so far prepared us for a near double-double in only 15 minutes. That's gobsmacking.
Andrew Harrison did a lot of good things, but turnovers again mar an otherwise excellent line. But six assists make this six games out of his last eight with five or more assists.
What can you say about Aaron Harrison? He started out cold, and ended up lights-out. He didn't have a single rebound, though, which is not like him.
All Julius Randle did was score yet another double-double. He only had 1 turnover, which is terrific for him.
Dakari Johnson just keeps getting better. He's never going to be Dwight Howard, but he plays old-school below-the-rim basketball and does it very well. He was extremely efficient at a 176 offensive rating.
James Young was magnificent. Honestly, he was my runner up for the game ball because he was ridiculously efficient making 5-7 shots, he got four rebounds and had an assist and a block. Offensive rating: 223. That's pretty darn good.
Alex Poythress was truly in beast mode last night. He was perfect from the field, had 3 rebounds, an assist, a block, some beastly dunks, and only one turnover. Great game. He has game-changing athleticism too, and it showed up against the Wolverines.
Dominique Hawkins didn't impact the scoreboard, but he definitely impacted the game by face-guarding Stauskas. That was some great work he did out there.
Tying it all up
Kentucky was fortunate to win this game with their poor defensive rebounding and sub-par free throw shooting. Both those things would normally be enough to doom them against an opponent of this caliber. But the Wolverines simply could not deal with the size, length, and skill of Kentucky's players. They spent a lot of time almost helpless as Kentucky played volleyball on the offensive glass, a weakness Kentucky knew it had to exploit.
The Wildcats also had a great day from beyond the arc, making seven threes in only eleven attempts. Wisely, the Wildcats did not fall in love with the long ball, but kept going to the glass where it had its greatest advantage. That strategy paid off in the end.
I can't say enough about the grit and toughness of this Kentucky team right now. How they turned themselves from a disappointment into one of the best Phoenix-rises-from-the-ashes stories in modern basketball history is as much a mystery to me as it is you. We always knew they had the talent, but up until the SEC Tournament, it was talent hampered by a void of cohesive team play. That cohesion has been found somewhere. Who knew that stuff was lying around on the street just looking for somebody to pick it up? Not I.
So now it's on to Dallas to face the Wisconsin Badgers. They badgers are, in some ways, very similar to Michigan except they are not undersized. Bo Ryan uses a uniquely talented big man who can shoot the ball outside as well as in to create mismatches. But we'll get to that in due time. For now, let's just revel in a job well done by the young Wildcats.