NCAA 2014: Michigan vs. Kentucky Preview

Dylan Burkhardt
Who: No. 2 Michigan (28-8, 14-3 B1G) vs. No. 8 Kentucky (27-10, 12-6 SEC) KENTUCKY_WALLMARX_LOGO[1]
Where: Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis, IN
When: 5:05 p.m., Sunday, March 30th, 2014
Radio: MGoBlue, 950 AM, 102.9 FM, 92 Sirius, 191 XM
Preview Content and Videos

Michigan will face the Preseason No. 1 team in the country, the Kentucky Wildcats, for a trip to the Final Four this evening.

The Wildcats went through their fair share of struggles this season. They lost to Arkansas twice, lost to South Carolina and nearly fell out of the top 25 in February. But despite the ups and downs, no one has ever questioned Kentucky’s talent. Now it’s starting to gel.

“This team has size, talent, skill,” Calipari said. “We just had to come together as a team.”

That’s exactly what Kentucky has done and exactly what college basketball is all about. Peaking at the right time is more important than a February game against Indiana or Arkansas. The Wildcats are playing their best basketball when it matters most and given their talent, that’s a scary sight for any opposition. Kentucky has knocked out two of last year’s Final Four teams, undefeated Wichita State and defending champs Louisville, and now they have a third opportunity against Michigan.

The Wildcats

Michigan’s last two games were against the fifth and sixth best offensive rebounding teams in the country. Now the Wolverines will face the second best offensive rebounding team in the country. Kentucky is the tallest team in college basketball with an average height of 79.4 inches and the Wildcats have a multitude of offensive rebounding threats. Julius Randle is a top-50 offensive rebounder while Dakari Johnson would be ranked fifth nationally if he played a few more minutes per game.

While the Wildcats are great on the offensive glass, they aren’t great shooters. Kentucky shoots 50.1% on twos (102nd) and 32.7% on threes (239th) for a 49.8 effective field goal percentage (158th). Kentucky makes 56% of its shots in the paint, but shoots just 28% on mid-range jump shots. The Wildcats attempt 53 free throws per 100 field goal attempts, 7th best nationally, while Michigan only allows 27 free throw attempts per 100 field goal attempts, 3rd nationally. Both teams are used to controlling the free throw gap, in opposite directions, which will make that factor particularly important. Kentucky doesn’t do a great job of valuing the basketball, giving it away on 18.3% of its offensive possession, and is just 8-7 when it turns the ball over on 19% or more of its offensive possessions.

Defensively, Kentucky is great in the half court and awful in transition. The Wildcats surrender .799 points per possession in the half court, 86th percentile per Synergy, compared to 1.159 PPP in transition, 23rd percentile per Synergy. That’s the largest gap among any teams in the Sweet Sixteen. Michigan’s ability to rebound-and-run and attack the Wildcats in unsettled situations will be critical because transition threes should be available. Kentucky is the 14th best shot blocking team in the country, but was ranked seventh in the SEC in 2-point defense.

Julius Randle NCAA Basketball Tournament Regionals O30G2c8xI_gl[1]


Julius Randle is projected as a top-five pick in the NBA Draft and leads Kentucky in scoring and rebounding, averaging 15.1 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. He doesn’t grade out as the best post player in Synergy (48th percentile) – mostly because his distribution from the post is a work-in-progress – but he’s quick, physical and talented.


Randle is dominant when he has two feet in the paint, but the key to defending him is forcing him to shoot over the top. His jumper is unreliable and it should be considered a win whenever he’s shooting jumpers instead of scoring at the rim.

James Young leads the Wildcats in field goal attempts and is a volume shooter from three-point range, but his floater in the lane is one of the more underrated elements of his game.


Andrew Harrison is the only Wildcat to take more than 30 shots off of pick-and-rolls this year. The pick and roll isn’t a big factor of Kentucky’s offense and Wildcats have only scored 36 points on rolls to the basket this season, but Harrison is Kentucky’s best at making something happen off the bounce. He’s also the best assist man, but he gives the ball away on nearly a quarter of his offensive possessions.


Andrew struggles inside the arc – shooting just 39% on twos – but he’s a decent shooter from the left wing and the top of the key.

Andrew’s twin brother, Aaron Harrison , is the more notable scorer. He’s a much better finisher at the rim, but doesn’t have much of a mid-range game.  He’s taken twice as many threes, but his 2-point shooting percentage is nearly 10% higher than Andrew. Aaron is more of a spot-up threat on the wing.

Willie Cauley-Stein injured his ankle and didn’t return to the floor in Kentucky’s win over Louisville. Calipari updated his status on Saturday.

“He’s still in a boot,” Calipari said. ” He’s doubtful.  He’s acting like he thinks he can do something, and I would be stunned if he played in this game.”

Losing Cauley-Stein would be a critical blow for the Wildcats. Cauley-Stein is the 13th best shot blocker in the country and his absence would limit Kentucky’s frontcourt options. The 7-footer plays 24 minutes per game and without him, the Wildcats will rely on three bigs for two spots instead of four.

Alex Poythress, 6-foot-8 239 pounds, and Dakari Johnson, 7-foot 265 pounds, will play critical roles. Johnson is Kentucky’s usual starter at the five while Poythress will spell Randle and Johnson at both spots. The duo are different players, but together bring a lot of the same elements. Poythress is long, athletic and blocks shots, while Johnson is a massive rebounding force on the block. Johnson has only played more than 25 minutes once this season — on Friday vs. Louisville.


Beilein offense on short prep

The magic number is 1.10.

Kentucky’s success relies on its defense. The Wildcats are just 3-8 when they allow 1.10 points per possession or more and they are 24-2 when they hold opponents below that mark. Michigan has been held below 1.10 points per trip just ten times this season and are 3-7 in those games. The Wolverines are 25-1 when they top that figure.

If Michigan scores more than 1.10 points per possession, it should win this game.

Michigan’s offense has flirted with perfection for stretches of this NCAA tournament, it’s also disappeared at times. The Wolverines will need to play a complete and dominant 40 minutes of offensive basketball to have a chance. Kentucky is the youngest team in college basketball and should have its hands full trying to prepare for Michigan on a short turnaround.

Zone defense

Guarding the Harrison twins and James Young off the bounce is going to be a chore for Michigan. The Wolverines were hapless defending Tennessee guards Josh Richardson and Jordan McRae, and things won’t get any easier against Kentucky’s versatile, long and athletic backcourt.

There’s a reason that Kentucky has faced zone defense more than any team in the country – it’s really hard to stop them in one-on-one scenarios.


Michigan’s zone defense isn’t great, but there aren’t a lot of better options. 1-3-1 zone, 2-3 zone, I suspect that Michigan will experiment with just about everything.

Rebound and run

Making Kentucky defend in transition will be critical because that means that Michigan is controlling the defensive glass, but also finding the opportunity to score in unsettled situations. Jordan Morgan has played out of his mind in the NCAA tournament and if Michigan is going to return to the Final Four, the Wolverines need one more impressive performance from their fifth-year senior.

Bottom Line

Ken Pomeroy’s odds project Sunday’s Elite Eight tilt as a 50-50 game and give Michigan a 1 point edge, 71-70. Vegas likes the Wildcats by two. This game has the makings of a shoot out, but if either team can’t keep pace it could get ugly quickly.

  • hailtoyourvictor

    How often does Michigan run a zone? I can’t imagine it’s more than 10%, but I can’t find any recent posts that can back that claim.

  • Boski

    Kentucky’s transition defense needs to be exploited!

  • Truth

    Arizona got robbed last night with that offensive call. (However, contrary to what people are saying, it was in no way comparable to the charge that Morgan took, because Morgan had his feet firmly planted whereas Gasser had been beat and was out of position).

    No idea how the refs will call tonight’s game: Even though our opponents have driven the lane at will, our double-teams have been very effective at negating big men in the post and also protecting Morgan from foul trouble. If Bielefeldt sees the floor tonight, let me just say that it’s been a great season, guys.

    If we do win: forget about these “long,” “athletic” SEC teams, I think the balance and discipline of Wisconsin (and subsequently MSU) presents a nightmare scenario for Michigan in the hunt for a championship — I would take Arizona and Florida any day over a brutal fourth rematch against cresting, hungry Wisky and MSU.

    The Big Ten has proven once again that it is the toughest league in America.

    • AADave

      While that call is usually not made, it should be since it was a foul. The Arizona player pushed off with his arm. So no Arizona wasn’t “robbed.” If he makes the shot and there’s no call, Wisconsin would have been robbed. I simply disagree with the whole notion of refs swallowing their whistles and refusing to enforce the rules in the last few minutes of a game. On the other hand, there should be some consistency. If they’re calling it a certain way all game, they should continue to do so.

      But in this case, it didn’t really matter anyway. Similar to the Michigan call, it actually hurt Wisconsin. The Arizona player missed the shot. It would have been rebounded by Wisconsin and time would have essentially run out on Arizona or they would have had to foul. They got a better shot at winning after being rewarded the ball on another disputed out of bounds play.

      As for tonight’s game, it would be to Michigan’s advantage if the refs enforce the rule book on offensive fouls. Unfortunately, too often a charge is called a block. If the game is called fairly, Michigan will probably win. If they allow Kentucky to charge/bull their way in and call fouls on the defense for just standing there, we’re in trouble. If it’s a game of “bully ball” (as Morgan put it), Kentucky will probably win. If it’s real basketball where skill rather than brute force is rewarded, we will probably win. We are the better more skilled basketball team.

  • Chris

    On Facebook UofM Basketball posted Bacari Alexander’s keys to the game and the first one was slow the game down. If that’s the strategy they go with, I’m not sure, it could be a long game. What about Kentucky points to half-court offense, I don’t get it.

    • arsenal926

      Believe he was saying he wanted UK’s offense to play in the half court and not let them run up and down . Michigan runs off just about every miss + most players talked about exploiting Kentucky’s transition D.

    • rlcBlue

      I believe 95% of the teams in the NCAA would prefer to play a half-court game on defense and in transition on offense. Michigan is definitely one of them.

  • sshow

    This is more exciting than Christmas as a kid. We know the possibilities, but we don’t know quite what we’ll get.

  • Tony DeMaria

    Man this is going to be a tough one. And if we win I can’t wait to see people downplay UM’s run to the Final Four saying we didn’t have to beat any team higher than a 7 seed.

    • BlueBear_E

      I think the upsets in our region will be part of the narrative, but two straight Final Fours would earn respect from the talking heads with real NCAA experience. They know how tough it is to make a tourney run. Three B1G teams in the final four would also be a big story-line.

  • Daniel McNally

    UK fan here, this is outstanding analysis and lines up pretty well with my observations from watching almost every UK game this season.

    Kentucky’s transition defense is indeed awful as you noted and it’s not what I’ve been used to with UK’s recent big athletic guards. Bledsoe, Wall, Goodwin, and others would often be the guys back on transition defense and they were incredible at blocking and altering shots in that role. This year it’s the Harrison twins who are often back on defense and they typically commit touch fouls or watch as the offensive player makes a layup. It baffles and frustrates me as I’d expect that at a minimum they could sprint back and stand in front of the basket with their hands up, but even that rarely happens.

    Still, it’s the Harrison twins who have stepped up their games the most the past few games – they’ll need to keep that up if they hope to win tonight.

    Thanks for the good read.

    • BlueBear_E

      We get to see this great stuff on a daily basis.

    • Tony DeMaria

      I think this is the third straight game where a fan of the opposing team has gone out of their way to compliment Dylan on his detailed and accurate game previews. No doubt each of these previews must take significant time which is tough tourney time when you have unfamiliar teams and sometimes 1 day between games. Kudos to Dylan and his crew for another fantastic season. Here’s hoping for another 8 days of awesomeness!

  • Wayman Britt

    UM’s needs to play a full 40 minutes of basketball today, no great one stretch and then terrible the next.

  • Chazer

    3 more W’s to The Destination!

  • gobluenyc

    In Jordan Morgan I trust.

  • Cory

    I’m really interested to see how Kentucky comes out in this one. I could see a letdown after a big win over Louisville or see them flying high with confidence. We have the experience advantage here. This is the biggest game most of these Kentucky kids have played on the big stage. There might be some early nerves.