Welcome to the Final Four, ladies and gentlemen of the Big Blue Nation, a very familiar place for the Kentucky Wildcats since John Calipari came to Lexington. This will mark the fourth Final Four in six years for Coach Cal and the Wildcats, a remarkable record by any standard, especially considering the high turnover at Kentucky.
Today’s opponent is the Wisconsin Badgers, a familiar foe indeed considering that just about one year ago, the Wildcats faced this same team in Arlington, Texas at AT&T Stadium. That game was a one-point win for Kentucky on the strength of a late Aaron Harrison 3-point shot burried right over the outstretched hand of Josh Gasser, who defended Aaron as well as possible.
In a way, it is fitting that Kentucky and Wisconsin face off again like this. One might say that the Badgers deserve another shot at the Wildcats after such a narrow and heartbreaking loss last season. Perhaps it is Karma, and perhaps it is fate, but once again, the Wildcats and Badgers face each other for the right to play for the 2015 NCAA Tournament championship.
Despite the rematch, the Kentucky team that will lace them up against the Badgers tonight is very different from the team that eked by them last year. This year’s Wildcats are taller, deeper, and much improved from last season’s Final Four squad — so much so that they have been considered the best team in the nation all season long by most observers, and have a defense that could be historically good in terms of efficiency.
The Badgers, on the other hand, return their team almost intact from last season. Wisconsin has been the most efficient offensive squad in the country for most of the year, and they come into this game ranked #1 in offensive efficiency by Kenpom.com.
This is the classic meeting between the immovable object and unstoppable force. It should be a beauty.
|Date:||Saturday, April 4th|
|Time||8:49 PM EDT|
|Place:||Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis, IN|
|Radio:||UK Sports Network|
|Live Video:||March Madness|
|Live Audio:||Westwood One|
See the full preview at UKAthletics.com
Season so far for Wisconsin
Wisconsin has had an outstanding season by any measure. Their only losses have been to fellow Final Four member Duke Blue Devils at home, to the Rutgers Scarlet Knights on the road when Wisconsin's best player was injured, and to the Maryland Terrapins late in the Big Ten season on the road.
Wisconsin got to this point by beating the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers, the Oregon Ducks, the North Carolina Tar Heels in the Sweet Sixteen and the Arizona Wildcats in the Elite Eight. There is no doubt that the Badgers have had a tougher test than Kentucky to this point, and they have passed with flying colors.
Wisconsin and Kentucky have a short but storied history, having met the last three times (including today) in the NCAA Tournament in later rounds. Prior to that, Kentucky and Wisconsin met only rarely, twice in the 1960’s, and once in 1976 in the now-defunct UKIT. Kentucky is 4-1 against the Badgers, their only loss coming in 1968 in Chicago.
In this century, Kentucky and Wisconsin have faced off once in the Sweet Sixteen (2003) and twice in the Final Four including this meeting. It is interesting that the 2003 meeting was against the Suffocats in Minneapolis, and it was in that game that Keith Bogans suffered the high ankle sprain that most Wildcats fans believe made it possible for the Dwyane Wade-led Marquette Golden Eagles to defeat Kentucky in the regional final.
|21||Josh Gasser||S**||G||6-4||192||RS SR||38||38||32.90||6.90||3.40||1.80||0.80||0.20|
|13||Duje Dukan||MR*||F||6-10||218||RS SR||36||0||16.20||4.80||2.60||0.60||0.20||0.10|
|3||Zak Showalter||R+||G||6-2||185||RS SO||34||0||7.60||2.10||1.30||0.40||0.30||0.10|
|35||Riley Dearring||R+||G||6-5||182||RS FR||15||0||2.60||0.70||0.30||0.10||0.10||0.00|
|2||Jordan Smith||R+@||G||6-3||180||RS JR||14||0||2.50||0.00||0.10||0.00||0.00||0.00|
|5||Aaron Moesch||R+@||F||6-8||215||RS FR||14||0||2.00||0.30||0.40||0.20||0.00||0.10|
|+||Eligible transfer/red shirt|
|&||Injured, not available|
Source: Wisconsin Athletics and Statsheet.com
|Rank and Records||WISC||UK|
|Strength of Schedule||#12||#38|
|RPI Top 50||11-2||14-0|
Wisconsin Team Notes
- … is the most efficient offensive team in the nation, averaging 1.27 points/possession. Against league competition, they were less spectacular averaging 1.21 points/possession.
- … is only a slightly above-average defensive team. For the year, they allow 96 points/possession, but in the Big Ten, they allowed over 100, which is really quite ordinary.
- … is a stellar ballhandling team. Wisconsin keeps their passes short and focused, and they don’t do many risky things. Their players are coached to minimize turnovers, and they are very good at it.
- … is an average offensive rebounding team at 32%.
- … doesn’t get to the line much. They are about on the Division 1 average at 36.5%.
- … is a good, but not great, 3-point shooting team at 36%.
- … is a poor 3-point defensive team, allowing opponents to shoot better than 37% from the arc.
- … puts zero pressure on the basketball. Wisconsin focuses on forcing opponents to run as much offense as possible and not on forcing turnovers.
- … is a very good free-throw shootnig team.
- … shoots a lot of threes at 37.5% of field goal attempts. For the sake of comparison, Kentucky shoots only 27.5% and the D-I average is 34%.
Wisconsin Player notes
Senior center Frank Kaminsky is the stud for Wisconsin. The USBWA National Player of the Year (Oscar Roberston Trophy winner) is a truly outstanding offensive player and a matchup problem for most teams. He is 7‘0" tall, shoots 41.5% from three, 58% from 2, and is the 18th most efficient player in college basketball. He is also an outstanding defensive rebounder.
Sophomore forward Nigel Hayes is an outstanding young power forward. He is very efficient offensively, shooting 38% from three, and is a good overall rebounder. He is the future of Wisconsin basketball, and pretty darn good in the present as well.
Junior Sam Dekker is the small forward at 6‘9", 230 lbs. He has been on fire from three, shooting a blazing 5-6 from long range against the outstanding defense of the Arizona Wildcats. Dekker is not a historically good 3-point shooter averaging only 34% on the season, but he has been extraordinary of late. Dekker is also a fine ballhandler and a very good offensive rebounder.
Sophomore Bronson Koenig joins Nigel Hayes as the future of Badgers basketball. Koenig has excellent size for a point guard at 6‘4" and makes him a quality matchup for Kentucky’s big guards. Koenig is a lethal 3-point shooter at 41%, and shoots it at 85% from the free throw line. He is also an excellent ballhandler.
Senior Josh Gasser was the defender of the Aaron Harrison 3-pointer last year, and despite textbook defense, Harrison made the shot that sent him and his team home empty. He has more reason than most to want another shot at Kentucky. Gasser also has good size at 6‘4", and even though he shoots the three somewhat ordinarily for a Wisconsin player at 38%, he is the 3rd most efficient player in all of Division I.
Duje Dukan is a 6‘10" senior who will spell Kaminsky off the bench. Dukan is not a great 3-point shooter like the rest of the Badgers, but he’s competent at 32%. He is a decent rebounder for his rail-thin 218#
Senior Traevon Jackson is the former starting point guard who now comes off the bench due to injury. The 6‘3" senior is an outstanding passer and ballhandler, and although he isn’t a good 3-point shooter, that’s not his game. He is the slasher of the group, and shoots an outstanding 84% from the free throw line.
- Junior forward Alex Poythress tore his ACL early in the year, and is out for the season.
- No known injuries.
The outcome of this game hinges on how well, and how often, Kentucky is able to stop Wisconsin. Wisconsin is offensively a powerhouse, racking up huge numbers throughout the tournament, never once managing fewer than 1.3 points per possession. I can confidently say that if they get that level of efficiency on offense against Kentucky, the Badgers will almost certainly be moving on to the NCAA Tournament finals. The reason is simple — Kentucky has reached or eclipsed 1.3 points/possession only 5 times all season, and none of those marks were against foes as talented as the Badgers.
But before you wring your hands in dismay, consider that the Wildcats are not only the best defensive team in the tournament by miles, they are the best defensive team in the country. Arizona was reckoned the third-best defensive team, and the Badgers put up huge numbers against them. The difference, though, is significant — Arizona lacked depth everywhere. Kentucky’s calling card is depth, and that depth is skilled.
Arizona fell because of foul trouble to Brandon Ashley, Stanley Johnson and Kaleb Tarczewski, three starters for whom they have no suitably talented replacements. Kentucky could absorb those same losses and still field a team that averaged over 6‘9" across the front line. That will be a conundrum for the Badgers, who have never faced a team as defensively proficient as the Wildcats, nor as deep with quality talent.
Additionally, Kentucky is no slouch offensively. They are the third most offensively efficient team remaining in the NCAA Tournament and the 5th most efficient in the nation. the odds are that if Wisconsin allows Kentucky more than 1.22 points/possession, they will lose the game. Keep in mind that they were yielding, on average, over 1 point per possession in the Big Ten, and none of those teams are as efficient as Kentucky. In fact, Notre Dame has very similar numbers to Wisconsin both offensively and defensively, and Kentucky managed to defeat them on a bad day.
Those hoping for a comfortable win are likely to be disappointed. These two teams are loaded with talent and the game is very likely to go down to the wire. Wisconsin’s desire to control the pace and number of possessions makes it very likely that the game will be close at crunch time.
If Kentucky can take away one of Wisconsin’s stars like Frank Kaminsky or Sam Dekker, it’s unlikely the Badgers can recover. Likewise, if Kentucky is able to draw fouls on those worthies and get them out of the game, Wisconsin simply doesn’t have the depth to play for long stretches that way. But what Kentucky cannot do is allow Wisconsin to do what Notre Dame did, and run down the shot clock before getting a high-percentage look. Neither can they foul Wisconsin — the Badgers make their free throws.
Kentucky must also exploit their offensive rebounding and free throw rate advantages. Both these things will help keep Kentucky’s offensive efficiency high and erode the Badger’s edge in scoring.
It boils down to this; Kentucky must force Wisconsin into an abnormal number of empty possessions while scoring efficiently against their relatively weak defense. The Badgers are never out of games because of their 3-point shooting, so even if the Wildcats take a substantial lead, don’t even think the game is over. This game will require Kentucky’s best defensive effort of the year, and a very good offensive effort as well.