8 Kentucky vs. 2 Michigan, 5:05 pm ET, CBS
In a lot of ways, the NCAA Tournament is about matchups more than anything else. When we see early round upsets where a clearly superior team falls, it's often because the underdog has a player who the favorite is particularly ill suited to deal with. Or the style of play just bothers them. Or a drastically different game pace throws the better team off. It could be a number of things, but the matchup is what counts.
Kentucky is a poor matchup for Michigan to deal with. It is, in some ways, a better version of the Tennessee team that very nearly knocked off the Wolverines on Friday. UM did blow a big lead, but the big lead was built on hot shooting. Michigan can rely on hot shooting as much or more than anyone else in the nation, but even for that team, it doesn't last forever. UT weathered the storm, came back, and had chances to send it to overtime or win late.
The Wildcats will have a definite size advantage as they so often do, but it's not just about having tall players. Michigan only has two guys in its rotation who are really interior guys, Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford. Horford plays sparingly, though, typically only in relief of Morgan. It's basically down to Morgan to do battle on the boards with Dakari Johnson, Julius Randle, and Alex Poythress. This would be an even bigger problem if Willie Cauley-Stein wasn't doubtful for this one with the ankle injury he suffered against Louisville. Tennessee's bigs had some issues with Michigan's speed—Jeronne Maymon guarding Glenn Robinson III was a disaster—but Kentucky's guys are more athletic.
Speaking of Robinson, he's going to have some real issues attempting to guard Randle. You can basically already pencil Kentucky's best player in for another double-double, and the chances are pretty good that he's going to go into Beast Mode a few times in this game. Michigan's defensive efficiency is just 99th in the country, far below any of the teams UK played in either the SEC or NCAA Tournaments. It would not surprise me at all to see the Cats break the 80-point barrier today.
This game largely comes down to Kentucky's ability to guard the three point line. Michigan has three starters who shoot better than 40% from deep, including Nik Stauskas and his 45% mark. UK did fine against Louisville, but Wichita State and Florida both shot better than 40% from downtown against the Wildcats in recent games. UM shot under 40% from three in all but one of its eight losses, and it failed to hit 40% in only two of its 12 wins over tournament teams (including its three games in the tournament itself). That rate is basically the one to watch here. If the Wolverines are making over half of their triples, something they did against Tennessee, then they've got a great chance to win.
It's not hard to imagine either team winning big in this one, really. Picture Kentucky's athletic guards driving past Michigan's defenders and Randle causing havoc, and the vision of an easy Wildcats win can materialize. Imagine Michigan's shooters pouring it in when UK's young guys make dumb mistakes and miss rotations, and UM cruising to another Final Four seems like a foregone conclusion.
I don't expect either team to run away with this game. Michigan has been the better team all season, but Kentucky has really found itself since the SEC Tournament began. The UK we're seeing now is not the same one we saw losing to Arkansas and LSU in January. It's not been the road anyone expected, but the Wildcats can definitely follow through on their preseason projected potential and make it to the Final Four today.