INDIANAPOLIS – The tweak is real. It is to be discussed in only the most nebulous way, a legend on the order of the colonel's secret spice recipe. Its mere existence, like the Higgs boson before it, is a matter of faith or theory before proven otherwise. But the tweak is real, they say. At some point during Kentucky's season, coach John Calipari made some sort of relatively minor adjustment to something and it triggered some other things that brought the Wildcats' season from withering disappointment to the verge of a Final Four bid on Sunday.
This was the tweak.
“He wasn't making it up,” Kentucky forward Alex Poythress said.
So what was the tweak?
“Oh,” Kentucky guard Aaron Harrison said. “Coach said not to say anything about it.”
Whatever it was, it was merely a fraction in the larger equation of a system refashioned to get the desired result. And that makes two of them on the raised floor at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday. In different senses, Kentucky and Michigan both have core structures and philosophies established over time. And both are in the Midwest regional final because of the adaptability of those structures, the capacity to fit players into a system and then fit the system to the players as needed.
For Calipari and Kentucky, it has been another year of leading the country in turnover rate, watching prized underclassmen leave and the replacing them with more prized underclassmen. And then it was molding five freshman starters into a potent unit by, yes, tweaking things just before it was too late. For Michigan, it is a John Beilein operation that looks mostly the same year after year but similarly had to adjust to the loss of prime talent in the offseason (Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway, Jr.) and then during the season as well (preseason All-American Mitch McGary). After all this, the Wolverines are one win away from their second straight Final Four, and the Wildcats one victory from a third Final Four in four seasons.
It is not plug-and-play for either. The remarkable part is that it appears to be.
“There are foundational things that we have to do, regardless of who's on the roster,” Michigan assistant LaVall Jordan said. “Taking care of the basketball, being unselfish, and playing the right way. Then there's putting guys in position to be successful, looking at your team and seeing the strengths of each individual and how we can kind of merge it all together to be the best team we can be. Last year is going to look maybe a tad different than this year, or the year before. What you always have to have is unselfish guys and team guys that are willing to buy into it.”
Michigan's success hinged mostly on a productive gestation period for Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert as freshmen; both were role players during the run to the title game a year ago, and then both matured into indispensable cogs in 2013-14. Stauskas won Big Ten player of the year honors and LeVert became a do-it-all scoring, defense and rebounding dervish. Still, the redeployment of Glenn Robinson III after McGary's injury represented the most significant on-the-fly change. Robinson III, a natural small forward, might have had to defend power forwards at times during the season regardless of whether McGary played or not. But the absence of a 6-foot-10 force limited the Wolverines' depth and options. There was a potential liability in size mismatches with Robinson III on four-men every night. So the plan turned to turning that mismatch on its head.
There was no better example than the first offensive set Michigan ran against Tennessee in the Sweet 16 on Friday: Jerome Maymon, the Volunteers' 6-foot-8, 260-pound tree trunk of a power forward, was matched up with Robinson III. The Wolverines' sophomore forward popped out to the top of the key, received a pass, and then blew by a less-fleet defender for a score. “We call it Bulldog – flashing up from the ball screen,” Robinson said. “I thought we did a great job using the ball screen, kind of getting them confused and turning their heads, and next thing you know we have a dunk at the rim. (Beilein) does a great job switching it up. We might not need that for a team like Wofford and Texas. We kind of pulled it out this week in practice.”
All Michigan had to do was help Robinson realize that a perceived disadvantage could be worked out in his favor.
“Midway through the season, he saw being frustrated and being upset with his role wasn't going to help him,” Stauskas said. “He just decided to make the most of his opportunity.”
Past is prologue, too: Robinson likely will match up against Kentucky's explosive 6-foot-9 Julius Randle on Sunday, which had one questioner wonder aloud if Robinson quite grasped Randle's obscene athleticism, if the Michigan forward understood Randle was no slow-footed specimen from Texas or Tennessee.
“I understand,” Robinson deadpanned. “I also understand – I don't know if you know this – but I'm pretty athletic, too.”
Meanwhile, for Kentucky and Calipari, it is another freshman-heavy group molded into another national title contender, even if that didn't seem likely to occur as recently as three weeks ago.
It's debatable how much a close call truly validates the philosophy of collecting new talent annually and then gambling that it will assimilate into something potent by March – “We almost ran out of runway when we landed the plane,” Calipari said Saturday, invoking one of his latest preferred metaphors – but there is no debating the result. The system again welcomed a mostly new core and adapted enough for a reasonable amount of in-season success. Then it adapted again to fuel a run to the Elite Eight. Even if the specifics of the adaptation are guarded somewhere in a bunker outside of Lexington, buried eight stories below ground and accessible only by retinal scan, the proof is evident. We think.
“We'll go to whatever we have to try to do to do this,” Calipari said. “The stuff we tweaked before the (SEC) tournament, I should have done that two months before. And they know it. The stuff I did before the NCAA tournament, I should have done that earlier.”
So what, exactly, was that?
“I'm going to wait until it's over and I'll go through everything that we did and when I did it,” Calipari said. “When you hear what I did, you'll say: Makes perfect sense. And then you're going to ask: Why didn't you do it earlier? And I'm going to tell you: I don't know.” Michigan and Kentucky have their respective ways of doing things. Much of what Beilein and Calipari begin with every season doesn't change. But it's the capacity to accommodate what comes next that brings them both to the cusp of another Final Four, again.