INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- After struggling through an up and down regular season that fell far short of expectations for a team boasting six McDonald’s All-American freshmen on the roster, Kentucky is more than making up for it in the NCAA tournament.
After knocking off Kansas State and then No. 1 seed Wichita State in the second and third rounds, the Wildcats won perhaps their biggest game of the year in a battle for the state of Louisville as they took out Rick Pitino and the Cardinals in front of an electric atmosphere at Lucas Oil Stadium Friday night.
Now in the Elite Eight and one win away from advancing to the Final Four, as a No. 8 seed, Kentucky turns their attention to the No. 2 seeded Michigan Wolverines.
“You found out in that game, if you give them threes, they're making them,” Calipari said. “So your hope is to make them tough threes. They may make them anyway.
“So somebody said, what can you do? I said, dim the lights, open up some doors, hope there's a wind blowing; I don't know. But they're going to shoot them anyway.”
Michigan is shooting just shy of 50-percent from three-point land in three NCAA tournament games, knocking down 32-of-65 attempts.
The biggest threat from the outside is Big Ten Player of the Year Nik Stauskas, averaging 15.3 points per game in the tournament. If Kentucky is to have any hope of stopping Michigan, Stauskas must be a marked man defensively at all times.
“He's good,” Calipari said. “You could say we're going to try to not let him shoot any balls. He's going to get off threes. They're going to dribble at and run him backdoor and he's going to get a lot of hand-offs. You can't say, he's a hard right driver; he'll go either way.
“But you do know 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 that guarding him, he's that good.”
Boasting the youngest college basketball team in the country, the biggest challenge for Kentucky will be getting up to speed on scouting reports and prepping for each of the actions Michigan and Coach John Beilein will throw at the Wildcats.
Already a team that struggles to defend, the Wolverines present some issues for Kentucky especially with the quick turnaround, Calipari quick to point out the good mix of players Beilein has been able to find now in his seventh season as Michigan’s coach.
“He has veterans that goes along with these young kids that he has,” Calipari said. “And it makes it easier because they can be coached by him and each other. And what they're trying to do is more of a -- it's not running plays.
“It's more of how do we play to create good shots for each other. It may be a down-screen, but he may slip. It may be I'm popping this time and I'm going to go into a hand-off. There's backdoors in it. And it's more of a free-flowing, quote, "Princeton" kind of offense. Yet they play fast. They score a lot of points. It's not like they're scoring 55 points, he's not doing that.
“But I'll tell you what, he's got these kids bought into their role in that offense. And I think that's what -- that's the challenge of coaching young players. And he's done unbelievable work in getting those kids to really believe and accept their role.”
Regardless of Sunday’s outcome, Calipari walks into this match-up and will walk out with a great deal of appreciation for Beilein and his methods on and off the court.
“One, I really respect him as a coach,” Calipari said. “He's played a different style -- he took the Princeton (offense) and took it and did what he wanted to do with it; but a lot of the same principles. I love that he creates a culture wherever he goes, which is what he wants the culture to be.
“And I love the fact that he's just a good guy. He's a good man. And you want to be in that company. You want to be -- if I see him out or see him at mass or whatever, he always has a good comment for you or, how are you, what's going on.”
The college basketball world will find out what’s going on when Michigan and Kentucky clash Sunday at 5:05 p.m. ET at Lucas Oil Stadium.