Three Hits: Kentucky outlasts Michigan, heads to Final Four

The Kentucky Wildcats are headed to their third Final Four in the past four seasons after a 75-72 win against Michigan on Sunday.

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The Kentucky-Michigan classic, capped by a game-winning 3-pointer with just 2.3 seconds remaining on the clock, was in many ways the most fitting send-off to the pre-Final Four edition of the 2014 NCAA tournament — a high-quality game from start to finish that included highlight dunks, lead changes, standout individual efforts, bad officiating decisions and, of course, Aaron Harrison’s decisive shot that sent John Calipari’s Wildcats to their third Final Four in four years. Here are three quick observations off Kentucky’s 75-72 win:

The quality of this NCAA tournament has been spectacular. A record-tying seven overtime games is only the tip of the iceberg. Stars have been just that — Michigan’s Nik Stauskas (24 points) and Julius Randle (16 points, 11 rebounds) both stood out at different times on Sunday — and the big plays have come in bundles.

And Kentucky has been in the spotlight. The Wildcats have been in arguably three of the best five games in these captivating past two weekends. Their past three wins have required double-digit comebacks: previously undefeated 1-seed Wichita State required a last-ditch effort for a 78-76 win; archrival Louisville, a title favorite and one of the most efficient teams entering the tourney held a sizable lead late in the game before the young Wildcats came storming back; Michigan jumped out to an early lead and went toe-to-toe with Kentucky for 59 minutes and 57 seconds, but one of the biggest shots in this storied program’s history sent the Wolverines packing. Those three wins make Kentucky the first team to ever knock off three of the previous season’s Final Four participants.

Nobody can land the knockout punch on Kentucky. Calipari’s youthful bunch just keeps on swinging, and now its next fight is in Texas.

This is just the third time in the NCAA Tournament’s modern era that two 7-seeds or worse have made it to the Final Four — joining the 2000 class (Wisconsin, North Carolina) and 2011 (Butler, VCU). Earlier in the day, 7-seed Connecticut knocked off Michigan State to reach the final weekend. Kentucky, perhaps an under-seeded 8-seed but an 8-seed all the same, was the final piece of the puzzle. Perhaps it doesn’t feel like such a rare occurrence considering the two programs pulling off the feat this year are two of the winningest programs over the past three decades in college basketball, but this has been a long road, especially for 10-loss Kentucky.

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The SEC put just three teams into the NCAA tournament field, much to the chagrin of the league’s big boys, namely Calipari, who lobbied for the likes of Georgia, Arkansas and LSU to get a chance to make some noise in the Big Dance. It didn’t happen. That left Kentucky, No. 1 overall seed Florida and Tennessee standing as the conference’s representatives.

All three programs made the Sweet 16. Two now find themselves in the Final Four.

Tournament success of a few teams does not necessarily validate a league in its entirety — if ever there was a top-heavy power conference this season, it was commissioner Mike Slive’s conference — but there are some bragging rights that come along with Florida and Kentucky making the final weekend. The resumes of Georgia, Arkansas and the like speak for themselves (not shoo-in bids by any stretch of the imagination), but now the least recognized power conference in the nation, in terms of bids, stands the best chance of claiming the national title.

Florida remains the favorite in efficiency metrics, popular opinion and Vegas. But Kentucky is jumping up the charts with this three-game run through an impressive gauntlet. The balanced Wildcats should match up well with Wisconsin, perhaps even be favored over the No. 2 seed by game time, and the last time they lost came by one point to the Gators in a competitive SEC Tournament final. Calipari’s group turned on a switch once the postseason arrived, and anyone setting odds factoring in their regular season letdowns (South Carolina, Arkansas twice) is just setting faulty odds.

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Don’t be surprised if an All-SEC final is the most popular choice.

In Nik Stauskas and Michigan, the NCAA tournament loses its most dangerous scorer and its most efficient offense remaining entering Sunday’s games. As Sports Illustrated’s Luke Winn has pointed out, Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency rankings’ all-offense/little-defense teams have trouble sustaining success in the tournament, and with the Wolverines’ exit the four teams remaining are either balanced or defense-dominant.

With all due respect to Randle, Frank Kaminsky (Wisconsin), Shabazz Napier (UConn) and Casey Prather or Scottie Wilbekin (Florida), Stauskas, the versatile 6-foot-6 wing, was probably the most consistently troubling presence for opposing defenses remaining in the tournament. (Only "probably" because Kaminsky, like Stauskas, is coming off an excellent performance against a very good defense.) Behind the much-improved Stauskas’ performance this season, coach John Beilein’s team boasted the most efficient offense in the country for a large part of the season, scoring approximately 123.4 points per 100 possessions.

But the Wolverines ranked 109th nationally on defense and, somewhat fittingly, they could not come up with one final stop to force overtime when their season was on the line. Overall, they played well enough to be in the Final Four — Kentucky won the game; Michigan did not lose it — but the final result does play into a trend. Offense-only teams, statistically speaking, have been at a disadvantage when trying to make the six- or seven-game run to cut down the nets. Here are the teams ranked outside the top-50 in defensive efficiency that have made the Final Four in the past five years:

It will not happen again this year either, though Wisconsin (No. 45) and Kentucky (No. 40) certainly flirted with breaking the trend. As it stands, Kentucky, Florida, Wisconsin and Connecticut are headed to the Final Four, and if the first two weekends offer any foreshadowing, it’s going to be worth watching.