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Michigan the final test on UK's arduous Final Four road

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John Calipari is one win away from his third Final Four trip in four seasons. (Chet White, UK Athletics) John Calipari is one win away from his third Final Four trip in four seasons. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS -- As NCAA Tournament paths go, it gets no more difficult than Kentucky's.

It began with a slug-it-out battle with ninth-seeded Kansas State. To follow, the Wildcats would have to beat No. 1 Wichita State, the first team to ever enter the tournament 34-0. Next, defending national champion and scorching hot Louisville, the four seed in the Midwest Region.

UK has to be rewarded with a reprieve after handling three games that challenging, right?

Wrong.

The Cats' final obstacle on their improbable quest for the Final Four is Michigan, only last year's national runner-up and a team that came within a Big Ten Tournament championship game win of a likely No. 1 seed.

If that all sounds tough, that's because it is.

For a little perspective, last year's Wichita State team faced the most difficult path to the Final Four in the history of kenpom.com's advanced statistical ratings. That year, the Shockers got past Pittsburgh (No. 11 in kenpom.com's final rankings), Gonzaga (No. 5), La Salle (No. 51) and Ohio State (No. 7) to reach the national semifinals. The average ranking of the four teams was 18.5.

This season, UK has already topped No. 43 Kansas State, No. 5 Wichita State and No. 3 Louisville. Now, No. 9 Michigan looms, meaning the average ranking of the opponents the Cats will have beaten to reach the Final Four will be 15.

So, what makes the Wolverines such a test? Let's use kenpom.com's stats to explore how UK and Michigan match up.

When Kentucky is on offense


In a bit of good news for UK fans, Michigan has the lowest-ranked defense of any UK opponent thus far in the tournament. The Wolverines allow 1.03 points per possession and rank 99th in adjusted defensive efficiency, worst of any team still alive.

Michigan, however, is not without strengths on defense. A hallmark of John Beilein-coached teams, the Wolverines avoid fouls and keep opponents off the free-throw line about as well as any team. They are third in the nation in defensive free-throw rate, meaning the Cats will be hard-pressed to find their way to the charity stripe as often as they're accustomed to.

UK will need to make up for that by capitalizing on Michigan's average effective field-goal percentage defense (144th) and defensive-rebounding percentage (100th). The Cats, particularly after the way they protected the ball against pesky Louisville, don't figure to commit many turnovers either against a Wolverine defense that ranks 249th in that category.

It's also worth pointing out that Michigan excels defending the 3-point shot, allowing opponents to make just 31.2 percent of their attempts on the season. If the Cats fall in love with the outside shot the way they did in the early going against U of L, it could spell trouble. They will be better served attacking the paint, as Michigan allows 50.1 percent shooting from inside the arc and blocks just 6.4 percent of opponents' attempts (305th nationally).

The numbers, in John Calipari's eyes, don't say everything though.

"They're better than you think defensively," Calipari said. "They cover elbows and blocks. They're going to play that 1-3-1 (zone).  They're going to throw some stuff at us."

When Kentucky is on defense

Offense -- and shooting in particular -- is what makes Michigan elite.

The Wolverines offense is ranked second in efficiency behind their effective field-goal percentage of .558, seventh nationally. Michigan is particularly lethal from 3-point range, shooting 40.2 percent (fourth in the NCAA). Four Wolverines -- Nik Stauskas, Zak Irvin, Derrick Walton and Carls LeVert -- shoot at least 41 percent and have hit at least 42 3s on the season.

UK will rely on its length and athleticism to contest those outside, as the Cats have done throughout the season. Kentucky opponents are shooting 31.8 percent from 3 on the season.

"You found out in that game (against Tennessee), if you give them 3s, they're making them," John Calipari said. "So your hope is to make them tough 3s. They may make them anyway. So somebody said, What can you do? I said, 'Dim the lights, open up some doors, hope there's a wind blowing.' I don't know. But they're going to shoot them anyway."

Michigan is also exceptional in protecting the basketball, so don't expect UK to create many extra possessions with turnovers. The Wolverines are 18th in turnover rate, while the Cats are 300th in defensive turnover rate.

UK, however, can make up for that by closing out stops by grabbing defensive rebounds. Michigan is 259th in offensive-rebounding rate, more often opting to get back in transition rather than attack the glass.

Bottom line

Barring on off-night, UK should be able to score regularly against the Wolverines on the strength of athleticism and offensive rebounding. Tennessee certainly was on Friday night, piling up 1.18 points per possession.

The question, however, will be whether the Cats can guard well enough in a game likely to be played primarily in the half court. Michigan is 333rd nationally in adjusted tempo and hasn't played a game of more than 60 possessions in the NCAA Tournament. UK has also been content to grind it out in March, averaging just 61.2 total possessions over its last five games.

Ultimately, by the quick-turnaround nature of the Elite Eight, it'll be about which team executes the things it wants to more effectively.

"You have to understand, I've got 16 hours to get these guys ready," Calipari said. "The good news is well, he had about 19 hours. So you don't have the time to go and say here's the 12 things they're going to do and defensively here's what they're going to do, you just don't have time.

"It's going to be our best, hopefully, against their best and see who comes out on top.  Neither one of us are going to change much. They play how we do, we play how we do."

(National rankings in parentheses)

 

UK

Michigan

Scoring offense

75.4 (60)

74.0 (81)

Scoring defense

66.5 (77)

64.8 (49)

FG percentage

45.1 (127)

47.7 (21)

FG percentage defense

40.8 (47)

44.2 (201)

3-point percentage

32.6 (237)

40.2 (4)

3-point percentage defense

31.8 (53)

31.2 (36)

FT percentage

68.6 (214)

76.2 (8)

Rebound margin

+9.8 (2)

+0.6 (178)

Steals per game

4.8 (307)

5.2 (271)

Blocks per game

6.1 (10)

2.4 (299)

Assists per game

11.3 (265)

14.3 (63)

Turnover margin

-1.4(271)

+1.4 (1)

kenpom.com adjusted offensive efficiency rank

13

2

Kenpom.com adjusted defensive efficiency rank

27

99

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 










   


Stat leaders

 

UK

Michigan

Points per game

Julius Randle (15.1)

Nik Stauskas (17.3)

Rebounds per game

Julius Randle (10.7)

Jordan Morgan (5.0)

Field-goal percentage

Willie Cauley-Stein (59.6)

Jordan Morgan (69.4)

3-point percentage

Andrew Harrison (35.6)

Nik Stauskas (44.8)

Free-throw percentage

Aaron Harrison (79.8)

Nik Stauskas (81.9)

Assists per game

Andrew Harrison (3.9)

Nik Stauskas (3.3)

Blocks per game

Willie Cauley-Stein (2.9)

Jon Horford (0.7)

Steals per game

Willie Cauely-Stein (1.2)

Chris LeVert (1.2)


To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

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