Preview: No. 2 UW vs No. 8 Kentucky
Who: The No. 2 Wisconsin Badgers (30-7) vs the No. 8 Kentucky Wildcats (28-10)
What: NCAA Tournament, Final Four, National Semifinal
Where: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas
When: April 5, 2014, approximately 7:49 p.m. CT
T.V. Coverage: TBS with Jim Nantz, Steve Kerr and Greg Anthony on the call and Tracy Wolfson on the sidelines. For a "Hometown" telecast, tune into TruTV where the voice of the Green Bay Packers, Wayne Larrivee, and former Badgers guard Mike Kelley will have the call and Phil Dawson will serve as the sideline reporter.
Last time: Wisconsin and Kentucky have matched up four times but only once in the NCAA tournament. That came 11 years ago in a Sweet 16 game in Minneapolis. The No. 1 seed Wildcats took down the Kirk Penney-led Badgers 63-57.
The line: Kentucky -1.5
How they got here:
Defeated No. 9 Kansas State 56-49 in the second round
Defeated No. 1 Wichita State 78-76 in the third round
Defeated No. 4 Louisville 74-69 in the regional semifinal
Defeated No. 2 Michigan 75-72 in the regional final
Defeated No. 15 American 75-35 in the second round
Defeated No. 7 Oregon 85-77 in the third round
Defeated No. 6 Baylor 69-52 in the regional semifinal
Defeated No. 1 Arizona 64-63 in overtime in the regional final
Player to watch: Julius Randle
The most talented among the very talented Wildcats, the freshman forward is a beast down low. He’s got a double-double in all four tournament games, and in the last three, 14 of his 33 boards have come on the offensive end.
“It’s been well known nationally they’ve been at the top or near the top most of the year (in offensive rebounding) and Randle’s the one that’s led the way with that,” UW assistant coach Greg Gard said.
A week ago, the Badgers went toe-to-toe with a player very similar to Randle in Arizona’s Aaron Gordon. UW went with Sam Dekker against the likely NBA lottery pick, along with throwing Nigel Hayes at him. Gordon was held in check – scoring just eight points but was able to haul in 18 rebounds.
“Obviously, Julius is a very good player. You got to respect everything he's been doing on the floor this year. He's going to be a test. He's a good player,” Dekker said. “But just like I said last week, with some of the guys we faced, as competitors, you want to play against the best players in the nation, and I think Julius Randle is one of them. He's proven it. As a competitor you want to go up against that and you want to see what you can do and you want to get a win over those guys.”
Teams have guarded Randle in a variety of ways, including doing what UK coach John Calipari called the “Shaquille O’Neil” defense, surrounding him with three guys and trying to be physical.
“Well, it's definitely hard,” Randle said. “It's frustrating. But I think when you win, it kind of takes the place of that. You don't really worry about it. But, I mean, it's frustrating, but you can't put too much into it. The biggest thing is that you try to learn how to affect the game in different ways, and that's what I've tried to learn this year. Just try to help my teammates out.”
And he did that by coming up with what seemed like every loose ball in their regional final win over Michigan and their Sweet 16 victory over Louisville.
“There's a reason he is talked about so much,” UW’s Frank Kaminsky said. “He's a difficult matchup for anybody who he's going against. Obviously teams have to throw things at him that he hasn't seen before to try to throw him off his game, and hopefully we can do that. We can try and frustrate him, because he's a very important piece for their success. If we get a player like that a little frustrated, it will be good for us.”
The key? Keep them off the glass
Wisconsin has not played a team better at collecting missed shots on both ends of the floor than Kentucky. The Wildcats crash the boards hard and well. They are ranked fifth nationally in both total rebounds per game and offensive rebounds per game, while their rebounding margin of plus-9.2 is second in the country.
“They’re just relentless to the glass, not only individually but collectively,” Gard said. “Two through five, everybody goes and then they bring a couple guys off the bench that don’t drop off (in production).”
In their tournament upsets over fourth-seeded Louisville and second-seeded Michigan, UK collected 32 extra opportunities on the offensive end.
“If you saw their last game you know they really dominated Michigan on the offensive glass and I think that was the difference in the game,” Kaminsky said. “So, we’ve got to be physical with them too. We’ve got to push back when they’re pushing us. Anything we can do to counter their physicality will ultimately help us win this basketball game.”
Kentucky’s size certainly helps them – they don’t have a starter under 6-foot-6 – but it’s also a matter of effort, something the Badgers certainly understand.
“I think just having 100 percent effort on the defensive glass the entire night. Any time you slip up and don’t get a box out, those guys are going to take advantage of it and get it. And they do it 1 through 5, and on the offensive end for us we don’t always send all five guys to the glass. They’re not afraid to send everyone there, and tussle inside to get the rebound –they’re very strong so we just have to have a lot of fight and a lot of toughness and a lot of grit and if we can do that well and keep them off the glass as much as possible, it will help our chances of winning, very much.”
It’s Frank’s world
The increase in Frank Kaminsky’s public profile is nearly incalculable. More known a year ago as the guy with the goofy goggles and headband, he just won the Most Outstanding Player award for the West Regional and has found himself doing national interviews more and more.
“Taken a back a little bit,” Kaminsky admitted about the attention earlier in the week. “To see all these people that have done it before with national interviews, with people like (Charles Barkley), it’s weird that it’s me now. I’m in that phase where it hasn’t really hit me that I’m the person doing it but I’m sure it will soon.”
That was last Sunday after their return to Madison. After his week of being featured on broadcasts around the country, and his name being mentioned by every analyst as a “matchup nightmare”, it would be impossible for him not to realize where his recent performances have taken him. He took down the imposing Isaiah Austin of Baylor in the Sweet 16 and then owned the inside and outside of Arizona’s defense to the tune of 28 points and 11 rebounds.
“He's playing with a swagger right now, like, ‘None of you can guard me’,” UK’s John Calipari said of the 7-footer. “So that's a challenge in itself.”
That challenge is made even tougher by likely not having center Willie Cauley-Stein, who is dealing with an ankle injury but hasn’t been ruled out for the game.
“If I could tell you Willie were playing, I would feel a little more comfortable because he's a seven‑footer that can guard inside and outside and all that,” Calipari added. “We don't have that guy if he doesn't play.”
Kaminsky also got a lot of attention last week for saying Arizona would likely say, “white guys”, when asked what they thought about Wisconsin. On Friday in Arlington, the junior was asked about why he thinks other teams would look at them that way.
“Sometimes we kind of fail that eye test,” Kaminsky said. “But it doesn't matter once the game starts. It doesn't matter what we look like. It matters how we play. I think we have been playing our best basketball of the year. So people can say we look like this and we look like that, we look like a bunch of white guys, but it doesn't matter at the end of the day.”
Playing on the big stage
The scene on Saturday night will be like nothing any player - on either roster - has seen. More than 75,000 are expected in the “House that Jerry built” and the massive size of the building is hard to ignore.
“It kind of feels like you’re outside to a point,” Kaminsky said. “When you’re looking through the backboard it seems like everything’s so far away. It’s an insane venue. I think it’s too big, honestly.”
What might be an advantage for the Wildcats is their familiarity with the setup. They lost to Baylor 67-62 in the arena back in December, while also playing in a football stadium in the SEC tournament (Georgia Dome) and in the regional (Lucas Oil Field) last week in Indianapolis.
“What's an advantage is we played in this building on that floor exactly where it's placed,” Calipari said. “The disadvantage is we lost.”
The hope for the Badgers is that the time they got out on the floor this week will have allowed them to get comfortable enough.
“It’s going to be an adjustment but that’s why we got a few practices and a shootaround in there,” Kaminksy said. “Hopefully we can figure things out through those.”
But the building is only part of the challenge. The moment – it is the Final Four – can be overwhelming for even the most veteran of teams. And though Wisconsin starts a senior, three juniors and a sophomore – and Kentucky starts all freshmen – neither will have an advantage when they step on the floor.
“Well, we know our guys are going to get in front of 75,000, look around and think, Oh, my, it's going to be that way,” Calipari said. “Then we'll both try to settle down our teams and try to get them to focus on basketball, lose themselves in the game and just play a basketball game. But if you think these 18‑ and 19‑ and 20‑year‑old kids are going to be not cognizant of what's going on around them, they will be.”
Ryan, who coached UW-Platteville to four titles in Division III, admitted the scene around the game will be different – the Pioneers played in front of 5,000 people in their title games – but said handling the atmosphere does not.
“Once the ball is thrown up, you still have to manage in those first timeouts,” Ryan said. “No matter whether it's Division‑I or Division III, you got to manage emotions and energy and try to channel it the right way and get everybody concentrating on what it is we do and don't try to be somebody that we're not.
“So again, we try to encourage our players to take in the ambiance and the surroundings, and but when it comes time to play, then just be who you are.”
From the bench
Both teams have gotten significant lifts off their bench this year and especially of late in the case of Kentucky.
Marcus Lee, another of the Wildcats’ nine true freshmen on the roster, hadn’t played double-digit minutes since Jan. 14 before coming off the pine to score 10 points and grab eight rebounds – seven offensive – in the win over Michigan. The 6-foot-9 Lee’s 15 minutes of action was the same amount he got in the previous 10 games combined.
“I called my assistant coach and he had to fill me in,” Ryan said of what he did when he saw Lee on tape. “Wow. It was pretty impressive. So we got to keep him off the glass. That's all I know. How about that for an addition off the bench? Scary.”
It may be needed again with Cauley-Stein unlikely to go. That forces 7-footer Dakari Johnson back into the starting lineup and leaves them a bit smaller coming off the bench, though they can also throw 6-foot-8 sophomore Alex Poythress at you.
For Wisconsin, Nigel Hayes could and likely will play a significant role. He might be who Ryan turns to if Randle is successful against Dekker when UW is on defense. And he could also be a problem for Kentucky to guard at the other end.
Bronson Koenig will also be a factor for the Badgers. While still coming along on the defensive end, the freshman has a deft touch for finding the open guy and for knocking down some outside shots himself. Against Arizona he drilled a 3-pointer with a guy in his face and also hit a long step-back 2-pointer near the end of the shot clock. He’s shooting 4 of 9 from distance in the tournament.
Some big guys
Kentucky’s starting lineup consists of players that are all 6-foot-6 or taller. All three of UW’s guards are under 6-foot-3. While the Badgers have faced some other big guards this year – Michigan’s Nik Stauskas and Nebraska’s Shavon Shields – it’s not easy preparing for guys like Aaron Harrison, who is shooting 13 of 24 from beyond the arc in the tournament and can also get to the rim.
“We've played big teams before,” the 6-foot-7 Sam Dekker said. “We've been outsized in multiple matchups this year, and I thought we've done all right with it. It's just going to be another fight and another test for us against a good team. They've got some big guys on the outside and inside … They've got good size. Everyone knows that.
“But we've got guys that are going to fight and claw and do everything they can to get a win. When you've got four guys on the court that are with you with the same mindset, it doesn't really matter how big you are. It just matters how much you want it and how much you're willing to fight for it.”
“Keep the faith. We can do this. We can definitely do this.”
UW coach Bo Ryan in an interview with CBS/Turner’s Jim Nantz to the fans that came to the Badgers open practice on Friday afternoon.