Michigan led 70-60 with 3:41 to go. Following a Jarnell Stokes dunk, a Jordan McRae jumper and a McRae and-1 layup (with a Jordan Morgan dunk mixed in), Michigan's lead went from 10 to 5 with 2 minutes remaining. After a complete scrum and a minute of sloppy basketball, Josh Richardson hit a jumper, Michigan turned it over, and the Michigan lead was down to 3. This felt like the same narrative from the Kansas game from last year, and must have been going through the head of all Michigan fans. Robinson committed another turnover and another McRae layup brought the lead to 1. Caris LeVert stepped out of bounds on the ensuing possession, and then Jordan Morgan made arguably the biggest play of his career, taking what was ultimately the game-saving charge. Nik Stauskas eventually went to the line and went one of two, and Michigan fans took a collective enormous sigh of relief when McRae's half-court heaven went over the backboard. Michigan escaped 73-71, and despite a near epic collapse (4 turnovers in the final 1:37 of the game), Michigan will be playing in the Elite Eight for a spot in the Final Four. Breathe Michigan fans, breathe.
In the second game, Kentucky proved that talent can beat experience. The Wildcats looked awfully sloppy early, going down 20-9 before ending the first half on a 22-14 run. Down by 7 with 4:30 to go, Alex Poythress' dunk cut the lead to 5, and then Julius Randle's layup and a Poythress' layup plus the foul tied the game with 2 minutes to go. The baby Wildcats were playing their best basketball on college basketball's biggest stage. Montrezl Harrell's fifth foul put Poythress on the line where he made one of two, and Russ Smith's jumper with 1:10 to go gave Kentucky the lead. But Aaron Harrison, a player who has been criticized and nitpicked all year for his play, hit the biggest shot of Kentucky's season, a 3-pointer that would ultimately be the difference. The Wildcats' win pits two of the youngest teams in the country for a spot at the Final Four. Breathe Michigan fans, breathe. With mini-recaps of how the two teams survived and clawed their way already discussed, let's preview the teams.
Kentucky: It's hard to talk about Kentucky without gushing over their 2013 recruiting class. According to ESPN, the Cats had the best Power Forward, Point Guard, and five of the ten best players in the recruiting class. These are John Calipari's five starters, all freshman, all finally gelling together at the right time. It's tough to fully understand what the purpose these players seek at the University of Kentucky is. While every team's ultimate goal is to win the National Championship, it's tough to convince 18 and 19 year-olds that could be making millions playing in the NBA to win essentially meaningless college basketball games for a school they only plan on attending for one year. Last year's Kentucky team lost their first round NIT matchup to Robert Morris, causing players like Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress to return for both their NBA draft stock and to try and make a run. Kentucky finished this regular season 22-9, 12-6 in the SEC, and lost to #1 seed Florida in the SEC championship by one point. En route to the Elite Eight, they beat two of the national title favorites before the season started in back to back games, Wichita State and Louisville. Not bad for freshman and sophomores chasing millions in the NBA.
Kentucky is lead by Mr. Double-Double himself, Julius Randle. Randle recorded his 23rd double-double of the season, finishing with 15 points and 12 rebounds while hitting two clutch free throws down the stretch to seal the victory for the Wildcats. Randle is similar to Jarnell Stokes in terms of body and size, but has a much more polished game. He can step out and knock down jumpers, and is an absolute force in the paint. Michigan knows it has its hands full, and Randle has stepped up in big games all season. Kentucky's other frontline starter is Dakari Johnson, who had a breakout game of his own last night. Johnson finished with 15 points and 6 rebounds, and was a shot-changing force throughout the game for the Louisville guards. With Willie Caluey-Stein seeming doubtful for Sunday's game, Johnson's importance is now more magnified than ever. Kentucky does not have another rotation player who plays down low, and it will be interesting to see if Calipari will match Michigan and play four guard/wing players instead of two traditional bigs. Kentucky also starts three guards, two of who make up the most criticized twins possibly in the history of college basketball. James Young, who plays the 3 and will likely be matched up with Caris LeVert, is a streaky scorer who can knock down 3's and attack the rim with ferocity. The other two guards, Andrew and Aaron Harrison, have been playing their best basketball of the season, like Kentucky, in this tournament. As Kentucky's point guard, Andrew has the keys to not only this Wildcats team but the pressure and scrutiny of the entire Big Blue fanbase. He had a mediocre regular season, but both he and Aaron played 38 minutes in the win over Louisville, combining for 29 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists. For Kentucky to have a chance in this game, the play of both twins will be absolutely crucial. Cauley-Stein's injury essentially means that Kentucky has 7 rotation players, and guard Dominique Hawkins did not record a statistic besides for three fouls in 15 minutes of play. Calipari will have to lean on the play of six freshman and Poythress to lead them to the Final Four.
Michigan: Saint Jordan Morgan. If you missed it earlier, I profiled how intangible Morgan has been to the Michigan program over the last five years. In fitting fashion, it was perfect that Morgan was the one to draw the charge with under ten seconds to go to help preserve Michigan's victory. Morgan was magical against Tennessee, going for 15 points on 7-9 shooting and adding 7 rebounds. Perhaps the most telling statistic was the production of Tennessee big Jarnell Stokes, who had been averaging 20 points and 15 rebounds. Morgan outplayed the highly touted Junior, as Stokes went for 11 points and 6 rebounds and was the one who barreled into Mr. Michigan with the game on the line. For Michigan fans, it's such a special feeling to watch Jordan Morgan morph into an NCAA tournament beast, and watching both Mitch McGary and Jon Horford cheer on their teammate with as much passion and support as they have. Morgan is well aware of the task at hand on Sunday against another enormous frontline, but Morgan has outplayed the bigs of Texas and Tennessee. If Morgan, the fifth year senior, could have another excellent game against the freshman bigs of Kentucky, Morgan would deserve Most Outstanding Player in the region and Michigan would be back on their way to the Final Four.
While Jordan Morgan is playing the best basketball of his career, Michigan had some up and down performances from some of its underclassmen. Derrick Walton had a very solid game, finishing with 9 points on two 3-pointers and making all 3 free throws on his other attempt. Zak Irvin also finished with 9 points, making all 3 of his 3 point attempts in 11 productive minutes off the bench.Glenn Robinson III continued his hot streak, finishing with 13 points on 5-8 shooting and 3 rebounds. I bring up the other three players to compare them to Michigan's two stars of this season, Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert. The duo combined to shoot 9-22 from the floor, for a combined 24 points and one total rebound in 70 minutes of play. LeVert did rack up 5 assists, but Michigan is going to need better production from its stars to continue to advance in this tournament. Their production is crucial because Walton, Irvin and Robinson are not going to shoot 6-6 from 3 and combine for 31 points. If Michigan can get 20 combined points out of those 3, and get more than 10 points from LeVert, it should be in great position to win. The entire country knows Michigan has a plethora of offensive weapons, but the key will be to keep Kentucky's guards from not making a huge dent in the scoring column. Jordan McRae, a first team all-SEC performer, went for 24 points on his own to match the effort from Stauskas and LeVert. Michigan cannot allow this to happen, and the defensive effort against Kentucky's guards could be a huge difference in the outcome of the game.
Prediction: Has Kentucky played way above their head the last 5 games dating back to the SEC tournament or are they actually this good as a team? Sunday will be an excellent test for Michigan, as Kentucky is one of the most athletic teams they have played and the Cats present a huge problem inside with both Johnson and Randle. Michigan arguably played its best half of the season in the first half of Tennessee, looking crisp on offense and dumping the ball inside to Jordan Morgan when they weren't knocking down 3's. If the Wolverines can continue to hit their 3's at as high a clip as they have done throughout the tournament, and can limit the production of Randle, they should be in good shape. My X-factor is Aaron Harrison. If Harrison can play like a top-10 recruit and run the Cats offense like a well-oiled machine, Michigan could be in serious trouble. If Michigan can force Harrison into turnovers and the rest of Kentucky into bad shots, it could be a long day for the Cats. When all is said and done, I think Michigan's shooters will be too much for Kentucky. Michigan hasn't overlooked anyone all year, and Kentucky is arguably the most talented team in America. But their dream run can't continue forever, and I think it stops in Indianapolis. Final Score: Michigan 78, Kentucky 71. As always, Go Blue!