Phil Mitten of the SB Nation Wisconsin Badger's community, Bucky's 5th Quarter, asked me to swap questions and answers about the upcoming Final Four game between UK and Wisconsin, and of course, I was happy to do so.
Below, you'll find my questions and his responses. Over at Bucky's 5th Quarter, you can have a look at the questions he ask me, as well as my replies. I also addressed a question that wound up in his Q&A after the fact at the end of this article.
So without further ado, here is Phil of Bucky's 5th Quarter:
1. The first thing I notice about Wisconsin is that they are a poor offensive rebounding team, but a very good defensive rebounding team. Do you think Wisconsin can keep Kentucky's size and quickness off the offensive glass?
Bo Ryan's philosophy dictates that Wisconsin's defensive rebounding statistics look much better than their offensive rebounding statistics. The Badgers sell out to limit transition baskets and are willing to live with the trade-off. It will be a challenge keeping the Kentucky bigs off the offensive glass, but knowing that the Harrison twins don't crash the boards much is comforting.
Like anything with Wisconsin, it will be a group effort: the interior players will box out and let the guards snag a large percentage of the loose rebounds. It's those short bounces in a crowd near the basket that are going to require that Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker be ready to bang.
2. Describe for us Bo Ryan's offense this year, and how you have managed to achieve one of the highest offensive efficiencies in America.
For those a little unfamiliar with Wisconsin, it may come as a surprise to know that despite its reputation as a defensive stalwart UW has posted a Top 20 offense for the past five years ... with the glaring exception of last season, when the nation's top defensive unit was painfully average on the offensive end.
This season, Ryan is running pretty much the same stuff he always has, but is allowing the guys to run a bit more than in the past. He is simply playing to his roster's strengths. Guys like Kaminsky, Dekker and Brust are more skilled and offense-oriented and point guard Trae Jackson has a knack for pushing the ball at the right time. Jackson admitted the players basically conspired to "change the culture" in the offseason. Wisconsin is not strictly running the Swing offense -- basically a continuity motion offense, based on interchangeable parts and cuts -- but you will still see elements of that. Spacing is key, especially when trying to kick out to open 3-point shooters. And this year, all five starters are good from deep.
3 . Wisconsin went through a bad stretch in January and early February where they dropped five of six games in the Big Ten, including head-scratching loses to Minnesota and Northwestern. What happened there? How did the team turn it around for the NCAA Tournament?
I think there were a few factors at play during that stretch, chief among them being lazy defense. Indiana exposed Wisconsin's ball screen defense in UW's first loss and the next few opponents punished the Badgers by attacking the lane. The teams' defensive help rotations weren't very crisp either. Like I said, this team is more predisposed to offense, so it's been a season-long process getting them comfortable playing the type of defense Ryan demands. The team has been practicing together since August due to its summer exhibition tour to Canada and I think some of the guys hit a bit of wall with fatigue and sickness around that time, as well. A massive flu epidemic was everyone's only guess as to how the awful Northwestern game happened. Obviously, Wisconsin has tightened things up quite a bit since then, enabling the Badgers to make it to Arlington, er, excuse me ... "North Texas."
4. We all know about Frank Kaminsky and his inside-outside threat. Other than him, is there any guy on your team that is particularly instrumental to Wisconsin's success?
Similar to Kentucky, many different players are capable of having big nights for Wisconsin. In fact, six different Badgers have led the team in scoring at least three separate times this season. So that's a really hard question to answer.
Kaminsky might be the only guy at this point who is irreplaceable in a traditional sense, because of his importance on offense and defense. However, if Trae Jackson continues to play well (12.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio in the tourney) that is a really good indicator for Wisconsin. Jackson will be up against a bigger, longer defender this time, in Andrew Harrison, who cannot be bullied by his upper body strength. Really it comes down to decision-making with him though, which (fingers-crossed) has been generally very good during the tournament.
One guy I didn't mention here is Dekker. Wisconsin has gone on this run in spite of Dekker's offensive lull, but seeing him explode for a big game is the hope lurking in the back of every Badger fan's mind. He will have to step up at some point for Wisconsin to reach the promised land.
5. UK and Wisconsin have met only four times in history before Saturday, most recently in the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight round in 2003, infamous in Kentucky lore because that was the game in which Keith Bogans went down with a high ankle sprain just before losing to Dwyane Wade and Marquette. What do you know about Kentucky basketball?
Uhm, lots? I dunno. Kentucky is one of the most storied and discussed programs in the country, so it's hard not to know a few things about them. Plus, honestly, I do have some good memories surrounding Kentucky. I visited the state as a child since we had relatives staying there one year, probably 1986 or 1987. I remember whomever's house we were at was a big Wildcat fan and had a weekend afternoon game on, maybe against Indiana. Rex Chapman became my hero for a good 18 months after that. And I vividly recall giving away the 1989 "Kentucky's Shame" Sport Illustrated issue to a friend and being upset years later that it was the only SI cover I was missing from the era.
Later on, Jeff Sheppard and Derek Anderson were two of my favorite players growing up. I loved Rick Pitino's famous championship team; they were invincible and a lot of fun to watch. Obviously, though, I don't cheer for UK anymore. John Calipari has been lapping the rest of the country on the recruiting trail, which is annoying, but I guess I'm okay with it -- college basketball needs that New York Yankees-type villain. You have to admire the fervor of UK's fans and the scale of the program's support (ie: facilities) for the team.
6. What matchup problems do you think Kentucky creates for Wisconsin? What matchups do you think favors the Badgers?
An offense named the Dribble Drive Motion is a concern for a team that struggled defending against dribble penetration at times. Wisconsin has faced off several times this year against teams with backcourt size that might be comparable to James Young and the Harrisons, but the results were mixed. The Badgers went 3-2 in games against Michigan, Iowa and Nebraska, with Caris LeVert, Nik Stauskas, Roy Devyn Marble, Terran Petteway, and Shavon Shields all having big games individually. I'm still having flashbacks to Shields' performance in the Nebraska game, where he craftily sliced to the rim for 26 points. Julius Randle also is the kind of aggressive player that could get a thin Badger front court into foul trouble. I can't wait to see him matched up with Nigel Hayes.
On the flip side, Kaminsky is going to be a tough play if his outside shot is falling because of his ability to finish off the bounce. He'll need the dribble drive in his repertoire, too, because I'm wondering if UK's length won't make some of the entry passes more difficult. However, Kentucky's young players are going to have to be very disciplined to keep a handle on four shooters spread around the perimeter. Dekker and Brust, in particular, are pretty cagey about cuts to the basket that open up because of the respect paid to the outside shooting.
7. Who comes out on top in this game, and why?
You can look at the individual matchups and give the edge to the Wildcats. Kentucky has a "team of destiny" kind of air about it and is correctly been installed as the favorite. Yet the Badgers have always been better than the sum of their parts and I have no reason to stop believing in Wisconsin now. Call me a homer, but I can't pick against UW here -- I'll take Bucky by two free throws.
Thanks so much to Phil and B5Q for doing the Q&A. You can follow him on Twitter at @B5Q as we work our way toward the big game on Saturday.
Finally, Phil made this observation at the end of his half of the exchange:
One topic I didn't touch was turnovers. For all the talk about Kentucky's length and athleticism, I found it odd that the Wildcats force turnovers as infrequently as the Badgers do. Kentucky is averaging just 11 turnovers per game in the tournament, though they've been prone to turnovers earlier in the season.
Turnovers have been a frequent topic on this site, both the infrequency of Kentucky forcing them and how they have affected the Wildcats. To reiterate for the benefit of B5Q readers, John Calipari has stated on several occasions that he would rather have his players available than have them pressure and draw fouls, and he also doesn't like to gamble a lot in the passing lanes, he finds it's better just to play sound defense than get burned on a missed steal that takes a defender out of the play.
Concerning Kentucky's turnovers, that's a major factor in how this game turns out. As I have pointed out before, there is a strong correlation between losses by Kentucky and turnovers at greater than 20% of possessions. So the fact that Wisconsin forces few turnovers acts in favor of Kentucky in that regard, because turnovers have such a disproportionate impact on UK's offensive efficiency.
There you have it. More to come.