Semifinal Matchup: #8 Kentucky Vs. #2 Wisconsin
- CoachingA legend in his own right, Wildcats coach John Calipari boasts an impressive and enviable resume in his time at Kentucky. Since 2009, Calipari has taken his team to the Final Four twice. He’s also been named National Coach of the Year three times in his career. Calipari is a players-first coach and his teams, especially when young, rally around him like no one else. His strategy to knock off Louisville in the Sweet 16 was the stuff of legends and his handling of the favorite in Michigan’s offensive strategy in the Elite Eight was along the same lines and no one knows the Final Four like Calipari does.Bo Ryan is a longtime fixture of the Badgers, having coached there since 2001 and finding loads of success along the way. Ryan has brought Wisconsin to at least the second round of the NCAA tournament (except for one year in 2005-06) since taking the job and knows how to win in March. He’s often overshadowed by the immense figure of Tom Izzo and other top Big Ten coaches, but he’s shown this year that his players know how to outlast the competition.
- OffenseThe Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron, only combined for 20 points, but Julius Randle, a phenom in the regular season, scored a double-double with 16 points and 11 rebounds for the Wildcats against Michigan in the Elite Eight. It was Aaron Harrison, though, who gave Kentucky the edge and sent them to the Final Four with his long three-point shot from way back with only 2.3 seconds left in the game. Dakari Johnson was quiet, but put up a monster game in the Sweet 16 against Louisville with 25 points, proving that all of Kentucky’s starters can be a deep threat to the Badgers. The loss of Willie Cauley-Stein will hurt Kentucky, though.Frank Kaminsky may not be a name that was heard all tournament long, but the Badgers’ top man scored 28 points against top-seeded Arizona to get Wisconsin to the Final Four. His footwork alone is mind-bogglingly good and able to keep even the toughest defenses on their toes. To back him up, Sam Dekker is another explosive offensive option for the Badgers and great at snatching offensive rebounds, creating second-chance opportunities galore. Kaminsky, though, showed that he can put a game on his back and this late in the tournament, that is rare. Wisconsin’s sharpshooters, led by Kaminsky, are proven.
- DefenseKentucky is one of the best rebounding teams in the country with 41.3 boards per game (fifth in the nation). They also rank ninth with 6.2 blocks per game and their big men are capable of some stellar moves. The Wildcats have also been good at minimizing turnovers, which has given them a distinct edge up to this point in the Big Dance. Kentucky’s players are more athletic than Wisconsin’s, and James Young gives UK a secret weapon in the backcourt. The real question to a Wildcats victory is: Can anyone stop 7-footer Frank Kaminsky?Wisconsin’s guards take full advantage of a great offensive system and a higher basketball IQ, allowing them to not have to work as much on defense. When needed, though, the Badgers have proven their defensive prowess by shutting down one of Arizona’s top players in Aaron Gordon, holding him to just 2-of-9 shots in the paint and six missed layups. Gordon shot 76.0 percent in the paint and only missed three layups in the first three games of the NCAA tournament.
- Bench DepthKentucky has a lot of freshman to boast on their starting squad, and they came through in the win against Louisville in the Sweet 16, with all of the Wildcats five freshman starters combining for 68 of the Wildcats’ 74 points. But the Wildcats proved with backup forwards Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee that their subs can play when needed when they added 18 points off the bench against Michigan. Lee also added eight rebounds in the effort.Nigel Hayes has been a solid freshman backup for Wisconsin, but as a whole, the Badgers are pretty thin on the bench. Guard Bronson Koenig added five points in the matchup against Michigan, but those performances aren’t as consistent as some analysts may like.
What a lot of this comes down to is Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky. If the 7-footer can put the team on his back and go on a rampage like he did against top-seeded Arizona, then the Badgers stand a chance of heading to a National Championship. But if Kentucky’s defense can find a way to keep the big man contained, then Wisconsin’s offense will wither and the Wildcats will cruise on defense and UK’s starters in the Harrison twins and Julius Randle will soar. One thing is for sure: If you find yourself in a Final Four match up like both of these teams now do, it never, ever, hurts to have a leader like Kentucky’s John Calipari calling the shots. Michael Ferro is freelance writer and a graduate of Michigan State University where he majored in creative writing and received the Jim Cash Creative Writing Award. Born and bred in Detroit, he currently resides in near Ann Arbor, MI. Additional writing can be found at Examiner.com.