BOZICH | Kentucky Measures Itself By Final Fours, Not Elite Eights
INDIANAPOLIS (WDRB) -- Beating Kansas State was the mandatory opening requirement for this University of Kentucky basketball team. Beating Wichita State started a rush for the UK bandwagon.
Beating Louisville was bragging rights, celebration in the streets and an official How Did They Do That? moment. Aaron Harrison's corner three makes the lengthy list of unforgettable UK basketball shots.
But beating Michigan is mandatory for this UK team to officially flip its legacy to a team that will be remembered for a remarkable NCAA run instead of as a team that rallied after an unremarkable regular season.
"We have 18-, 19-year-olds that were counted out and ridiculed and crushed and can't play, not any good, bad guys," UK coach John Calipari said.
Some of that is true. This team was also given a lot of love. Some of it is exaggeration from a coach who was trying everything to motivate his players. Some of the criticism even came from John Calipari.
Of course, John Vincent Calipari also raised many expectations. Check CoachCal.com – the Oct. 7, 2013 entry. That's where Calipari says he got so excited by the talent he saw during practice that he started "singing" and "dancing" in the car and realized he'd better make more recruiting calls to prospects in the Class of 2014.
Beating Michigan is mandatory to make the story what the story was supposed to be when Calipari started stacking McDonald' all-Americans in his alpha-dog freshman class.
The coach works it both ways. He said great things about this team when he recruited everybody to Lexington. His brow was deeply furrowed after those puzzling stumbles against Arkansas and South Carolina.
Now, on Sunday at 5:05 p.m. in the Midwest Regional championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium, Kentucky plays a both ways game.
Win and Calipari will have earned his applause for taking the Wildcats to the NCAA Final Four for third time in four seasons. He'll make Kentucky only the sixth team seeded eighth in its regional to make the Final Four since the NCAA began seeding the tournament in 1979.
Stat of the Day: Less than 4 percent of all eight seeds have made the Final Four. Only one – Villanova, 1985 – won the NCAA title.
Going to the Final Four as an eight-seed would be a big deal, a credit to how Calipari rescued the season.
Lose? You know the bylaws of Kentucky basketball. This is not a program that measures success by Elite Eights. Never has. Never will. Final Fours are the minimum requirement for prolonged applause.
National championships are preferred. Elite Eights are a consolation prize. Didn't people scoff at Florida for stalling in the Elite Eight the last three seasons before the Gators won the South Regional Saturday? I thought so.
Rodrick Rhodes was an Elite Eight player. So were John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins.
Tony Delk, Walter McCarty, Jeff Sheppard, Scott Padgett, Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist separated themselves with rings.
Can Kentucky do it, even without Willie Cauley-Stein, who will almost certainly miss the game because of significant injury to his left ankle?
The Wildcats are favored by two. The Wildcats have delivered the most dazzling three-game stretch of any team in the bracket. They're good and getting better by the dribble.
The Wildcats have more of a size advantage on the Wolverines than Kentucky had against Louisville. Michigan has been outrebounded during the NCAA Tournament and has not played a team that goes to the glass like Kentucky.
Will they do it?
I believe they will.
The Harrison twins are making shots, making plays and following Calipari's instructions. John Beilein does not have anybody on the Michigan roster who matches up effectively against Dakari Johnson UK's mammoth freshman center. Julius Randle has already demonstrated that he can put 20 points and 10 rebounds on anybody.
Michigan's best chance is making three-point shots. In three NCAA games, Michigan has made 32 three-pointers. Their opponents have made eight. The Wolverines have made nearly 50 percent of their three-points, while their opponents have barely made 19 percent.
There was not a team in the Southeastern Conference this winter that plays the way Michigan plays – spacing the floor, moving the ball and making three-pointers from four different positions. Michigan is a tough matchup after one day of preparation.
"I don't want to say we're dependent on it, but when our threes are dropping, that's when we're at our best," said Michigan sophomore Nik Stauskas.
"It's extremely tough to close out on us when we're shooting well. We've got guys who can get to the basket and finish. When our threes are dropping I feel that we're very versatile and teams have a very tough time stopping us."
Michigan is as formidable as Wichita State or Louisville, the last two teams the Wildcats have beaten. The Wolverines won the Big Ten regular-season title by three games. They played in the NCAA title game last season. They have two guys – Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III – who are projected as first-round picks in the 2014 NBA Draft.
Michigan is good.
Kentucky is better.
The Wildcats were more talented than Michigan in October, November, December, January and February. They're more talented in March.
Once they weren't playing like it. Now they are.
Beating Michigan is mandatory for this Kentucky team to be remembered for much more than its talent. At Kentucky, they keep track of Final Fours, not Elite Eights.
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