INDIANAPOLIS — Notes and quotes from the Midwest Regional as the Kentucky Wildcats (27-10) prepare to face Michigan (28-8) today in the Elite Eight (5 p.m. on CBS):
To hear Kentucky coach John Calipari tell it, you’d think coach Jim Beilein’s Michigan roster is filled with grizzled veterans. The truth is Beilein has had to almost completely remake his roster from the Wolverines who lost to Louisville in the national championship game last spring.
Gone from that Michigan team are NBA rookies Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., along with last year’s freshman sensation, Mitch McGary, who has missed most of this season with a bad back.
The Wolverines start just one senior, 6-8, 250-pound forward, Jordan Morgan; three sophomores, 6-6 forward Glenn Robinson III, 6-6 guard Nik Stauskas and 6-6 guard Caris LeVert, and 6-1 freshman guard Derrick Walton, Jr.
“He has veterans that go along with these young kids,” Calipari said of Beilein, whose Wolverines held off Tennessee, 73-71, Friday night. “And that makes it easier because they can be coached by him and each other.
“And I’ll tell you what, he’s got these kids buying into their roles in that offense. And that’s the challenge of coaching young players. He’s done unbelievable work in getting those kids to really believe and accept their role.”
Stauskas is a dead-on 3-point shooter, who leads the Wolverines in scoring at 17.3 points per game.
Robinson contributes 13.1 points and 4.4 rebounds per game, and LeVert is next at 13 points and 4.4 boards each time out.
Morgan leads Michigan in rebounding at five rebounds per game.
Michigan’s blueprint is not boardwork, however. The Wolverines are out-rebounding their opponents just 31.6 to 31.1 on average.
The Wolverines’ trademark has been outstanding perimeter shooting — 40.2 percent from 3-point range — and unselfish play.
“I know our teams will always have shooters,” Beilein said. “Speed and quickness and all these other things are intangibles. But shooting is a prerequisite. We feel you can make bad shooters good, and 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.”
Calipari’s team is, of course, made up of grizzled freshmen, shall we say.
But Cal and Beilein have a very similar outlook about young college players.
“I think the biggest challenge to having young teams is, number one, defense, which comes and goes with young players,” Beilein said. “Number two is understanding that the team comes first.”
Sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein left the court in considerable pain Friday night, early in Kentucky’s win over Louisville, due to an apparent foot injury.
Calipari said Saturday that Cauley-Stein is suffering from a bum ankle, not an Achilles injury that was originally suspected.
“He’s still in a boot,” Calipari said of Cauley-Stein early Saturday afternoon. “He’s doubtful. He’s acting like he thinks he can do something, but I would be stunned if he played in this game.”
Much has been made, by writers and fans both, about how the Kentucky Wildcats have largely reshaped their legacy in the post-season. Freshman forward Julius Randle said he and his teammates are aware of the chatter, but don’t spend much time thinking about it.
“Yeah, in a way I think we have,” Randle said when asked late Friday night if the Wildcats have rewritten the history of this team.
“We just kind of had to put the past behind us, and leave it where it was. This is a new season. That’s all we can really worry about is survive and advance. We carried momentum from the SEC Tournament into the NCAA Tournament. (But) We’re taking it a game at a time.”
For all the talk about Calipari’s very public scolding of his young players this season, the UK coach said Saturday that he’s never stopped believing in his team. And Randle, for one, took that comment a step further.
“He is tough on us, but it’s the best thing for us,” Randle said of Calipari. “He’s going to push us every day. You may not like it some days, but at the end of the day, it’s best for us. And it’s not just about basketball. What he’s teaching us goes beyond basketball. It’s a lot of life lessons. So you’ve got to take it in stride every day.”
Calipari, sitting beside Randle, appeared touched.
“I’m really happy to hear Julius talk about life lessons because a lot of things we do, and I do — getting them to read different books, talking about different ways they can handle themselves, talking about the position you’re in right now, fame and fortune — money has wings and fame is fleeting.
“So you have an opportunity to make somebody feel good, spend 15 seconds, sign an autograph ... how hard is that? They’ll talk about it for the next five years. And it took you five seconds. If you make life about everybody else instead of yourself, it becomes a lot easier. That’s the challenge we have, all coaches, coaching young players. Try to make it more than just basketball. I really do.”