Michigan counters Kentucky's size advantage with three-point sharpshooters

jtipton@herald-leader.comMarch 29, 2014 

  • The threat of the three

    The Michigan Wolverines are the last remaining obstacle to Kentucky's 16th appearance in the NCAA Final Four, but an insubstantial roadblock they are not — largely because of the three-point shot.

    These guys are not "Pitino's Bombinos" who famously attempted more than 800 three-pointers in a season four times during the 1990s.

    But Coach John Beilein's bombers knock theirs down with greater efficiency than any team in Kentucky history.

    Michigan has made 312 of 776 three-point attempts this season for a scintillating 40.2 percent.

    Only Creighton (41.4), Utah State (40.6) and Cleveland State (40.4) shot the three-pointer better than the Wolverines, who make 8.7 threes per game.

    Michigan's percentage has risen even higher in its three NCAA Tournament games.

    This season, Kentucky faced two teams — Michigan State (39.3) and Belmont (39.2) — among the nation's top 20 three-point percentage teams.

    The Spartans made five of 12 attempts (41.7) and beat Kentucky 78-74. The Bruins hit 11 of 30 (36.6) and lost to Kentucky 93-80.

    Wolverines in NCAA play

    73-71 win over Tennessee 11-20

    79-65 win over Texas 14-28

    57-40 win over Wofford 7-17

    Total (49.2%) 32-65

    Herald-Leader Staff Report

  • Kentucky vs. Michigan

    What: NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional finals | When: 5:05 p.m. Sunday | Where: Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis | TV: CBS-27 | Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

    Records: No. 8 seed UK 27-10, No. 2 seed Michigan 28-8 | Series: UK leads 4-2 | Last meeting: Michigan won 81-78 in overtime on April 3, 1993, at the NCAA Final Four in New Orleans

    At stake: Winner advances to the Final Four in Arlington, Texas, to play either Arizona or Wisconsin

INDIANAPOLIS — Job One for Kentucky in Sunday's Midwest Region finals: Limit Michigan's three-point shooting. In their first three NCAA Tournament games, the Wolverines have made 32 three-pointers to the opponents' eight.

"You just put a hand up and, hopefully, they have an off night," Andrew Harrison said Saturday. "Or something like that."

Hope sounded like a flimsy foundation for advancement to the Final Four.

Yet, Tennessee strongman Jarnell Stokes said much the same thing before his team lost to Michigan 73-71 Friday.

"Michigan is a very difficult team because they hit so many tough shots," he said. "We can contest their shots. (But) some of it has to be luck. You have to hope they're not hot that night.

"I don't like playing three-point shooting teams because it's so scary. Will they make the shots or will they miss? This team plays almost like the Golden State (Warriors). You have to almost hope they miss."

Michigan made 11 three-pointers in holding off Tennessee. That followed 14 treys, a Michigan record for an NCAA Tournament game, against Texas and a mere seven against Wofford.

"Your hope is to make them tough threes," UK Coach John Calipari said. "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.'"

Guard Nik Stauskas, the Big Ten Player of the Year, is the sharpest of Michigan's sharpshooters. He's made 10 of 23 three-point shots in this NCAA Tournament. On another team, Caris LeVert (6-for-12), Derrick Walton, Jr. (6-for-8), Zak Irvin (5-for-11) and Glenn Robinson III (4-for-8) might be the featured shooter.

Michigan Coach John Beilein said he prizes shooting, that most basic of basketball skills, as he recruits players.

"We're looking at it very closely," he said. " ... We want everybody to be able to shoot and pass. Speed and quickness and all these other things are intangibles. 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'd like to."

Stauskas, who has made 44.8 percent of his three-point shots this season, grew up in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, somehow avoiding playing hockey.

"I don't think I'm tough enough to play hockey," he said. "I just keep it real."Instead, Stauskas shot basketballs for "four or five hours" every day. "Outside by myself," he said. "Over time, those reps build up."

Tennessee tried to command the three-point line and make Michigan shoot twos. "Our job was to try to run them off the line as best we could and make them drive," Jeronne Maymon said. "They still found a way to stay in their game."

This did not surprise UK guard Jarrod Polson. "They also are good drivers," he said. "So it's not like you can just crowd them and not let them shoot because they'll just go right around you."

UK's counter is size. Michigan starts no one taller than 6-8 Jordan Morgan. That suggests Robinson, a 6-6 sophomore, giving up 3 inches and 30 pounds trying to guard Julius Randle.

"We're extremely reliant on 'J-Mo,'" Stauskas said. "In my opinion, he's one of the best post defenders in the country whether blocking shots, taking charges, rebounding."

If Morgan needs help, there's always double-teaming or trapping UK's low-post threat.

Morgan, a fifth-year senior pursing a master's degree in manufacturing engineering, considers double-teaming an insult.

"Because I've been guarding people in the post for years," he said. "I just feel it's unnecessary."

To double-team is to cause defenders to rotate, which can lead to open perimeter shots, Morgan said.

"In the end, it's a lot better to leave me to work one on one," he said. "Sometimes they might score, but I'd rather that happen a couple times than them getting threes off rotation."

Although Big Ten champions, Michigan played the no-respect card.

"Our team is a bunch of guys that have been overlooked," Morgan said. "It's just like that's how we play. We've got a whole program full of guys that people have always, like, counted out, and we just take that and use it as fuel."

If Michigan's ability to play defense without fouling continues, UK would be without its free-throw component (29.5 attempts per game).

Michigan leads the nation in fewest fouls: 14.3 per game.

"That's huge as far as every game plan is attack at all times," Polson said. "Hopefully, if they don't foul, it'll be easier to attack."

Beilein acknowledged the need to keep UK off the foul line.

"It's difficult because they have a way of driving the ball and ... avoiding charges," he said. "They've got some guys that are crafty with the ball and can get either to the rim or jump around you (or) jump over you. So it's really important."

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.

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