It’s a matchup everyone in college basketball wanted to see, and one Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari maybe even anticipated. Speaking to reporters Sunday, Calipari gave his squad’s Final Four opponent, the No. 1 Wisconsin Badgers, a ton of credit.
“And I've said all along I thought the three best teams were us, Wisconsin and Arizona -- and Duke,” Calipari said. “And other teams are right there, but those four seem to be a little bit better than the others.”
Indeed, Wisconsin (35-3, 16-2) might represent the toughest opponent No. 1 Kentucky (38-0, 18-0) has played all season, and ahead of Saturday’s showdown, there are several angles to explore.
For the Badgers, it’s the fourth overall trip to the Final Four in the program’s history, building off last year’s trip when they lost to Kentucky 74-73. But the Badgers and head coach Bo Ryan are hoping to break past the second-to-last tournament maze ring and into the national title game for just the second time in school history, when they won their only national title over Washington State, 39-34, in 1941.
Kentucky is making its 17th trip to the Final Four and third straight. The Wildcats are seeking a third consecutive appearance in the national title game, with their last victory coming in 2012.
Saturday’s matchup at Lucas Oil Stadium is also fairly rare. The last time two teams met in the Final Four in consecutive seasons was 2007, when eventual champion Florida bested UCLA in the national semifinal a year after beating the Bruins in the title game.
Here are seven things to know about the game before tipoff.
The Wildcats need two more victories to complete a perfect season. The last team to do so? The 1975-1976 Indiana Hoosiers, who carried their perfect regular season mark into the NCAA Tournament and finished 32-0 and national champions.
Deep shooting hasn’t been Kentucky’s strong suit all season. The Wildcats have shot 34.7 percent from beyond the three-point arc this season, and during the tournament that number has slipped to 31.3, or 15-for-48. On the other hand, Kentucky did go an excellent 4-for-8 from three in the regional final against Notre Dame.
That does bode well for Wisconsin, which has struggled against the deep ball much of the season, allowing opponents to connect on 37.4 percent of their attempts. However, the Badgers have countered with a 36.4 percent clip of their own,
Young teams tend to commit more mistakes, like poor shot selection, but in Kentucky’s case turnovers could be a bit of a problem. On the season, the Wildcats are averaging 10.6 giveaways per game, compared to 13.8 forced against opponents. During the tournament, Kentucky’s committed 45 turnovers to opponents 41, a shade above their positive 3.2 average.
The Badgers have taken much better care of the ball, giving up 7.4 turnovers to 9.7 for opponents. In their four tournament victories, the Badgers have won the turnover battle 29-28.
Thanks to excellent guard play, Kentucky has the edge in terms of forcing turnovers, but does commit its fair share. Meanwhile, Wisconsin protects the ball, but will have to make the most of its opportunities since it doesn’t seem to create extra ones.
Upperclassmen vs. Underclassmen
Kentucky’s become the powerhouse of late thanks to Calipari’s recruiting and his ability to coach younger players. This season, of 16 Wildcats on the roster, 11 are underclassmen, including four top freshman contributors in guards Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis, and forwards Karl-Anthony Towns and Trey Lyles.
On the flipside, while 10 underclassmen make up their 16-player roster, the Badgers owe their success to the upperclassmen. Seniors Frank Kaminsky, Traevon Jackson and Josh Gasser, and junior Sam Dekker lead the way, with sophomores Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes the only underclassmen to start.
Kaminsky vs. Towns
Perhaps the biggest matchup to watch is Kaminsky and Towns, or rather how much Calipari and Ryan allow the two to defender each other. Kaminsky leads Wisconsin in scoring (18.7) and rebounding (8.0), and is the first option on offense nearly every trip down the floor.
Towns, considered a lock for one of the top three picks in this summer’s NBA Draft, didn’t put up his 20-plus point game until the Wildcats opening tournament win but he’s a dangerous low-post scorer who’s coming into his own at the best time. He put up a career-high 25 points against a tough Notre Dame squad in the Elite Eight, but if he gets into foul trouble the Wildcats will lose their top inside presence.
Instead, Calipari could ask big men Willie Cauley-Stein or Dakari Johnson to check Kaminsky, and Ryan could switch off forward Nigel Hayes to protect Kaminsky.
With Las Vegas bookmakers tabbing the Wildcats as five-point favorites, the game could come down to free throws at the end. A huge chunk of Wisconsin’s points have come from the charity stripe, as it takes 19.2 free throws a game and knocks down 14.7. The Badgers also don’t foul much, with opponents averaging 11.5 attempts per game. Again thanks to top talent on the wings, Kentucky can better Wisconsin in terms of drawing fouls. The Wildcats average 24.5 free throws per game and hit 17.8 of them.