Kentucky Basketball: Wildcats Are Final Four Favorite After Epic Defeat of Michigan
There is a reason the NCAA tourney is described as “Madness”, although all the “upsets”, buzzer-beaters and in-game drama are only part of the equation. It’s when combined with the intrigue created by the underlying subplots that truly complete the insanity that is college-hoops in March.
Every new-school fan was anticipating an Elite Eight matchup between the Michigan Wolverines and Kentucky Wildcats that would live up to its billing as a potential “Game of the Year Nominee”, although the “what might have been” potential to witness Julius Randle and injured Wolverine star Mitch McGary slug it out in the paint would have sealed that notion instantly. As of the final buzzer, this Big 10-SEC clash is not just a definite front-runner for the award — it’s the runaway winner.
However, all old-schoolers remembered and reminisced about the classic 1993 Final Four overtime-battle between the two programs. One that featured the Jamal Mashburn led Wildcats against the legendary Fab-Five of Michigan. 20-plus years later, a coming full-circle moment was upon us.
Let’s fast forward to Indianapolis, Ind., where an explosive, havoc-wreaking fight to the finish had Lucas Oil Stadium on full-tilt. High-octane adrenaline was a prerequisite for this one.
Both universities have been looked at in similar ways this past season. Kentucky, the preseason No. 1 ranked squad in the nation, endured critics throughout its inconsistent performances. The Wolverines were seemingly regarded as a team that could not overcome the loss of former leader Trey Burke (a nice story, but not taken seriously by the “experts” if you will). The former has transformed into the menace it was first thought to be while the latter continues to get the shaft.
The differences in offensive attacks were met head-on with Michigan’s ability to rain from the outside (49 percent from three-point land coming in) versus the “establish inside presence” philosophy of the Wildcats. When monsters like Randle and Dakari Johnson exist in your paint, John Calipari is no fool. The sixth-overall ranking in offensive rebounds belongs to the Bluegrass State for a reason.
Along with the beneath-the-surface storylines came the overlooked stat of Kentucky’s top overall rank in free-throw attempts going up against Michigan’s crown of committing the fewest fouls in the nation. The contrast in these two clubs couldn’t have been more stark.
It’s only fitting that an unsung hero would emerge from this instant classic. Kentucky’s Marcus Lee, one who did not receive any playing time in the first two rounds followed by a “colossal” one-minute of action in the Sweet 16, continuously produced at both ends, finishing with an unheralded line of 10 points, eight rebounds (seven offensive) and two clutch blocks.
Honorable mention goes to the star of the “perceived” underdog’s camp, as amidst the rolling of the Randle hype-train, Nik Stauskas reminded everyone what the Big 10 player of the year was capable of.
NBA Draft Lottery: The Canadian kid just joined the party.
Despite defeat, Michigan basketball silenced its doubters, showing they belong at the top of the NCAA food chain. As far as Kentucky hoops, well, to quote the infamous Dennis Green: “They are who we thought they were.”
The Wildcats now travel to north Texas as the favorites to win it all as this school continues to build paramount performances.
Dreams of Michigan going up against its state rival in the championship were not to be. But with the all-freshman Kentucky starting lineup reminiscent of Michigan’s historic heyday, perhaps it will finish what the Fab-Five started.
One thing is clear; this tilt will forever go down in history as the definition of March Madness.