If you're looking for another colossal upset, the Spartans' clash with the Wildcats at the United Center is a prime candidate. Twelve seeds are always tough-outs, regularly knocking off favorites in March. Historically they upset five-seeds 32.9-percent of the time. Only twice in the last 18 years have the five seeds posted a perfect 4-0 record against those scrappy underdogs. What contributes to the 12-5 matchup being a magnet for the unexpected? For starters, 12-seeds often come from mid-major conferences whose rosters are devoid of one-and-done superstars. Instead of lottery picks littering their box scores, these teams are often upperclassmen-heavy, with loads of experience and veteran leadership. Another key factor has been basketball's greatest equalizer, the three-point shot. In six of the last nine 12-5 upsets, the underdogs have shot a higher percentage from beyond the arc.
Michigan State is far from a Cinderella candidate, but they do share a few 12-seed traits. Compared to the Kiddy Kats who have three one-and-done starters, seven of Michigan State's eight players played for four seasons in East Lansing, with Magic Johnson the lone exception. In addition to their experience, four Spartans shot 40-percent or better from downtown (Skiles, Smith, Valentine, Respert). Pepper in Tom Izzo's win percentage in tournament play (71.2%), and his seven Final Four appearances and the Spartans appear to be a live dog in this matchup.
On the opposing bench sits arguably the greatest recruiter in the history of college basketball. His recruiting prowess, however, belies one of his greatest talents, the ability to blend five-star recruits into a cohesive unit. Since arriving in the Blue Grass State, Calipari has sent four separate teams to the Final Four. Those teams were led by an average of three true freshman starters. No matter how young his teams are, once tournament play rolls around, Big Blue Nation can count on Calipari to deliver victories.
A few extra tidbits to consider before action tips off on Madison Street:
- The average draft position (NBA/ABA) of Kentucky's roster once they turned pro...3rd overall.
- Five Michigan State players have appeared in the Final Four compared to four from Kentucky.
- Calipari and Izzo have been tremendous during NCAA tournament play, particularly in close games. When a game goes to overtime or is decided by five points or fewer, Izzo has gone 11-2, and Calipari has posted an 8-2 record.
Coach Cal was interviewed by Scott Van Pelt earlier this week, and made an interesting point in regards to Legendary Madness and the famous Kentucky fanbase. "These fans are the best, the most educated, passionate, they're basically fans that you're looking for and you dream about," said Calipari, through a grin. But he continued, "you have to be careful what you wish for because they're there like a coat, they don't go away." Big Blue Nation was out in Chicago in force, but so were their outsized expectations.
The pressure to not only win but win decisively appeared to weigh heavily on the Cats in the early going. Michigan State forced John Wall into a pair of early turnovers, the second of which came off a botched alley-oop to Jamal Mashburn. Mashburn hit the floor awkwardly forcing him to the bench. He was worked on by the training staff for several minutes before re-entering the game. The other early storyline was Michigan State's undersized front line holding up their end of the bargain. Draymond Green and Mo Peterson were able to keep Boogie Cousins and Anthony Davis off the offensive glass in the opening minutes. The combination of sloppy guard play and contested jump shots allowed the Spartans to jump out to a 10-3 lead.
Steve Smith and Shawn Respert meshed perfectly with Magic Johnson, who facilitated the fast break with ease. Smith and Respert were overly aggressive from the jump and seemed to take every Johnson dime hard to the hole. They finished with 17 combined foul shot attempts.
The Wildcats would cut into the Spartan lead around the eight-minute mark behind a baseline trey from Dan Issel. The scoring machine was relegated to sixth man duty but ended up playing so well off the bench that Calipari played the school's all-time leader in points (2,137) for 30 minutes. Issel, who is a load in the paint, threw off Michigan State's defensive assignments, forcing Denzel Washington to defend the rim on a few occasions. The results for Tom Izzo's team were less than stellar. Kentucky weathered a 1-9 start from three-point range by collecting ten offensive boards in the first half.
Michigan State's early lead had all but vanished by the time the buzzer sounded for halftime. Nursing a one-point lead headed into the break, it was clear that the tide had turned for the Wildcats. Making matters worse for Tom Izzo and his staff was that Mo Peterson and Draymond Green had both picked up their third fouls in the first twenty minutes of action.
A defining moment of the game, and really the tournament as a whole, galvanized UK moments into the second half. Sam Bowie was fouled hard by Mo Peterson under the basket, resulting in an injury to the former All-American. Bowie was able to walk off under his own power, but the replay revealed that Peterson had undercut the Kentucky big during his layup attempt. Peterson was hit with a flagrant one and spent the majority of the second half on the bench. Despite his size advantage, Coach Cal stepped on the accelerator after that, pushing the tempo with Wall and Ron Mercer at every turn. A one-point deficit quickly became a 12-point lead for UK, and a Mercer steal and dunk sent the partisan crowd into an uproar.
The final five minutes of the game became a stat-sheet-stuffing bonanza for Boogie Cousins and the Cats. Cousins would finish the night 10-for-17 from the field for 24 points and nine rebounds. Sean McDonough couldn't help but jump to the next matchup for Kentucky, an Elite Eight rematch with Duke to be played in Philadelphia at the Wells Fargo Center. "Forty minutes wasn't enough the last time these two met in Philly for the Elite Eight back in '92, and I'm certain no one will object to them retaking the main stage with the college basketball world watching," said McDonough.
As for this one, UK closed out MSU 80-71, concluding the first round of Legendary Madness.
John Calipari was initially coy with Kaylee Hartung after the game, before admitting that even he is excited for the retro-rematch in South Philly. "Oh, is Duke on our side of the bracket?" asked Calipari. "Well, I for one think it's great, this is why kids come to Kentucky, to show that they're the best on the biggest stage," said Calipari, restraining himself from launching into a full-on recruiting pitch.