INDIANAPOLIS — The Michigan men’s basketball team is one of the nation’s youngest teams, and yet, with a trip to the Final Four on the line, it draws an opponent with even less experience.
Kentucky starts five freshmen, and as a logical corollary, the Fab Five comparisons start up. Michigan’s 1991-92 team is the only one to reach a Final Four starting five freshmen, and the Wolverines will look to keep it that way Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“We can’t worry about comparing ourselves to the Fab Five or anything like that,” said Julius Randle, Kentucky’s freshman phenom forward. “We are focused on us, and our focus is on Michigan and not comparing ourselves to history. We are trying to make our own history.”
Randle is the key piece in the Wildcats’ bid to make that happen. He is 6-foot-9, 250-pounds and is expected to be a top-five pick in the NBA Draft. He averages 15.1 points and 10.7 rebounds, and in a tournament where Michigan’s lack of size has been called to attention time and again, Jordan Morgan’s challenge gets even tougher.
“More than anything, I think I have experience to my advantage,” the fifth-year senior forward said. “I have been guarding excellent post players for years now.”
Kentucky was picked in the preseason to be the country’s top team, but it took longer than expected for the results to line up with expectations.
“We grew up,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari. “We have 18-, 19-year olds that were counted out and ridiculed and crushed. … You’ve got a bunch of good guys up here that have stuck together through all the barrage, never let it affect them.”
The Wildcats hung tough with then-No. 2 Michigan State in a November loss in Chicago, but when they went south for SEC play, their play followed. They lost six games in a top-heavy conference in which five teams finished with an overall record under .500 and in which only three teams reached the Big Dance. Kentucky grabbed a pedestrian 8-seed when the bracket was announced.
But tournament wins over national championship contenders Wichita State and Louisville showed, however, that Kentucky belonged in the conversation of top teams.
As the Michigan program has reinvented itself into a basketball power in recent years, it has earned its keep against some of college basketball’s brand names. Since 2011, Michigan has beaten UCLA, Kansas, Florida and Syracuse, along with Big Ten foes Michigan State and Indiana on a consistent basis, and has taken Duke, Louisville and Arizona to the wire.
When the Wolverines get a shot at Kentucky, they will be the ones with March Madness experience. Eleven of 16 Wildcats are underclassmen playing in their first NCAA Tournament. If you aggregated the scoring of the five others on the team, they’d combine for 1.54 points per game.
Michigan is just a year removed from having started three freshmen in the NCAA Tournament, so the players can get a feel for what might be rattling around in the young Wildcats’ impressionable minds.
“I think, not all the time, but at times, we got so into people talking about leaving and so into people talking about what’s next for our careers rather than just playing basketball,” said sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III.
Having handled that and knowing how to deal with it, Robinson said there’s more emotional maturity for this go-round.
“I already been through that situation,” he said. “I kinda put that behind me — all that stuff until after the season.”
As far as the on-court demeanor goes, sophomore guard Nik Stauskas thinks Michigan has an edge there as well.
“It was a lot of nerves for all of us being out there in front of 40-50 thousand people,” he said. “I’m sure some of those guys will feel the same thing. For me, there’s a lot less nerves this time.”
Just as against Tennessee, Michigan will contend against considerable size at guard. Instead of two 6-foot-6 guards from the Volunteers, Kentucky will play three.
That won’t mean a lot though, if Michigan shoots the way it did against Texas and Tennessee’s long arms.
“Regardless of who we’re playing, our offensive strategy doesn’t change much,” Stauskas said. “We just try to be aggressive, whether that’s getting to the basket and scoring or getting to the basket and kicking out for threes. We feel very confident in the offense that we have right now.”