Tipoff: Michigan vs. Kentucky, Elight Eight, Lucas Oil Stadium, 5:05 p.m., Sunday.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The experts got it wrong. It happens when two starters bolt early for NBA opportunity, another is sidelined with a season ending back injury, and uncertainty seems to rule.
Could Michigan return to the national prominence after such personnel losses?
Not likely, it seemed, which is why it began in Michigan State's preseason shadows, and then that of Ohio State and Wisconsin. Standouts Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway had left for NBA riches. Mitch McGary blew out his back.
The perception was that was too much to overcome. Plus, the Wolverines were painfully young, playing just one senior (forward Jordan Morgan) and one junior (Jon Horford). The rest were freshmen and sophomores.
Wisdom suggested the Wolverines were not championship caliber.
And then, of course, they proved they were.
Michigan (28-8) won the Big Ten title by three games, an achievement not diminished by losing to Michigan State in the conference tourney title game. It earned a No. 2 NCAA Tournament seed and played its way into today's Elite Eight showdown with eighth-seed Kentucky (27-10) at Lucas Oil Stadium. It has won nine of its last 10 games, five as nail biters, including Friday's 73-71 win over Tennessee.
So go ahead and pick against the Wolverines, sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III said. They embrace it.
“We've been doubted,” he said. “I don't think anybody really expected us to be in this position. But one thing we've done is stay confident in each other and get each other better. We know our roles and play them to perfection. We're setting each other up to be successful at all times.”
Set up starts with coach John Beilein, who wins with three-point happy offense. The Wolverines spread the floor with good shooters, and excel at finding them. That starts with recruiting. If you can't shoot, you can't play for Beilein.
“We look at (shooting) very closely,” Beilein said. “We want everybody to be able to shoot and pass."
The state of Indiana is a big Wolverine resource. Robinson, Mitch McGary, Spike Albrecht, Zak Irvin, Andrew Dakich and Sean Lonergan are all from the state.
“Speed and quickness and all these other things are intangibles," Beilein said. "But shooting is usually a prerequisite. We feel you can make bad shooters good. You can make good shooters great. But you probably can't make too many bad shooters be able to space the floor the way we like to.
“I know our teams will always have shooters. That's the plan for now, and in the future.”
Shooting will be crucial against a Kentucky team that has knocked off No. 1 seed and previously undefeated Wichita State, and defending national champ Louisville in its last two games. The Wildcats have won six of their last eight, with both losses coming to No. 1 Florida.
UK coach John Calipari said he's well aware of Michigan's three-point prowess.
“If you give them threes, they're making them. So your hope is to make them shoot tough threes. They may make them anyway, but make them tough.
“Somebody said, what can you do (to slow down the Wolverine's shooters)? I said, 'Dim the lights, open some doors, hope there's a wind blowing. I don't know.' But they're going to shoot them anyway.”
Beilein said one of his assistant coaches has been working on the Wildcats for the last week. Coaches have extensively studied UK's last “10 or 12 games.”
“They certainly ended playing as well as they have all year. But we're still in discovery. We prepare all in one day. We started at 6 a.m. (Saturday) and we'll go to 5 p.m. (today). We have smart young men. We can adapt very quickly.”
Kentucky is finally playing to its preseason No. 1 hype. Starting five freshmen has resulted in plenty of growing pains. The key, Calipari said, is that the Wildcats have grown.
“I've continued to coach like it's mid-season,” Calipari said. “Now, somebody will say, 'He's nicer.'”
He pointed to freshman Julius Randle and sophomore Alex Poythress.
“How nice was I, Julius, last night? You want to ask Alex how nice I was? How was I with you (Poythress) in the first half, with your messing around?
“I'm holding they accountable, but they're playing the way they need to play, so I don't have to get on them as much. But I told them, if you slip, I'm going to be right there.”
That will include staying on Michigan's Nik Stauskas, the Big Ten MVP.
“He's good,” Calipari said. “You could say we're going to try to not let him shoot. He's going to get off threes.
“You have to stay on him. If you lose him in transition, if you lose him in penetration and he's open, don't even try to rebound it. Just run back. So you've got to know when guarding him, that he's that good.”
UK likely will be without 7-foot sophomore forward Willie Cauley-Stein, who severely sprained his left ankle during Friday night's win over Louisville. He was in a walking boot on Saturday. He averages 7.0 points and 6.2 rebounds.
“He's still in a boot,” Calipari said. “He's doubtful. He's acting like he thinks he can do something. I would be stunned if he played, but he says he may want to give it a try. But he hasn't been out of that boot.”