Biggest Challenges Michigan Faces in NCAA Tourney Matchup vs. Kentucky

Steve Silverman@@profootballboyFeatured ColumnistMarch 30, 2014

Biggest Challenges Michigan Faces in NCAA Tourney Matchup vs. Kentucky

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    Michigan faces a piece of its own history as it meets Kentucky in this Elite Eight matchup at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

    The Wildcats start five freshmen, and if they happen to get the best of the Wolverines, they will be the first all-freshman starting lineup to reach the Final Four since the legendary Fab Five played at Michigan in 1992.

    The Wolverines are not about to get nostalgic. They know that John Calipari's team has already beaten powerful Wichita State and the defending champion Louisville Cardinals.

    Michigan faces several challenges as it prepares for this Elite Eight encounter.

Nik Stauskas Must Set the Tone

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    Michigan is facing an opponent that is growing up and maturing on a national stage. The Wildcats' youthful lineup has already beaten two of the best and most respected programs in the country, and John Calipari's team is not going to be intimidated.

    Instead, Kentucky is going to be an aggressive and dynamic team that has plenty of confidence.

    Michigan can't afford to let Kentucky dictate the pace of this game. The Wolverines have come out and set the tone in their three NCAA games with their stellar shooting. They must do the same in this game.

    Nik Stauskas is the best shooter on the team, as he is averaging 17.3 points per game and shooting 47.1 percent from the field. He can also break any game open with his three-point shooting, as he is connecting on 44.8 percent of his shots from beyond the arc.

    While Stauskas gets plenty of support from his teammates, he needs to have a top-level performance against this talented opponent if the Wolverines are going to get back to the Final Four.

Limit Julius Randle

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    There's no doubt that all five of the freshmen in Kentucky's starting lineup are dangerous players and the Wolverines will have to be on high defensive alert.

    However, they are going to have to be at their best to contend with Julius Randle, the 6'9", 250-pound power forward who can dominate with his size, strength and athleticism.

    Randle is the Wildcats' leading scorer, averaging 15.1 points per game and shooting 50.1 percent from the field. Randle is also a dynamic rebounder who can command the glass. He is averaging a team-high 10.7 boards per game.

    If the Wolverines can't keep Randle in check, it's going to be quite difficult for Michigan to steal this game.

Front-Line Strength

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    Michigan has had two significant challenges in its last two NCAA tournament games against Texas and Tennessee.

    Both of those teams had dominating front-line players who were supposed to cause problems for Michigan. The Longhorns and the Volunteers were both supposedly too big and strong for Michigan to handle in the post.

    Somehow, that message did not get across to Jordan Morgan. Though he was smaller than Texas big man Cameron Ridley or Tennessee's Jeronne Maymon, Morgan got the best of both big men.

    It's doubtful that Morgan can stop Randle one-on-one, and don't expect the Michigan coaching staff to ask him to do that.

    However, they need Morgan to score from the front line, get rebounds and at least play adequate defense against Kentucky's front line.

    Morgan scored 15 points against Texas, and he matched that total against Tennessee. If he can hit that figure against Kentucky, Michigan coach John Beilein will be thrilled.

Calipari vs. Beilein

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    This should be a classic matchup between two of the best coaches in college basketball. Kentucky's John Calipari is a dynamic recruiter and a motivator, while John Beilein is an excellent teacher and strategist.

    Calipari will try to control the pace of this game. He may want to run if he senses his young team is too fast for Michigan, but he will also slow down when his team is not playing cohesive basketball.

    Beilein excels at finding the best matchups for his players. He is going to be challenged to do that in this game because Kentucky has so many talented players. However, don't overlook Beilein's ability to put his players in a position to succeed and then change the pace of the game to suit his players.

    Calipari and Beilein have never coached against each other. Calipari has never coached against Michigan, while Beilein is 0-2 against Kentucky. Beilein's defeats came when he was coaching Canisius in 1996-97 and when he was leading West Virginia in 2004-05.

Caris LeVert Must Be an X-Factor

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    Caris LeVert is Michigan's third-leading scorer, as he is averaging 13.0 points per game and has shown the ability to be a dynamic scorer.

    LeVert was not at his best in the Sweet 16 game against Tennessee. He made a crucial turnover late in the game that gave the Vols a chance to win, and he was held to 10 points in the game.

    When LeVert is at his best, he is a game-changing player. He is very quick and athletic, and he can get his long arms into the passing lanes. He is not content to merely deflect passes, either. He wants to come away with steals.

    If LeVert is not at his best against Kentucky, it could be a very long day for Michigan.