The No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats (38-0; 18-0) have turned back 38 different attempts to upend their hopes for not only a national championship but the first perfect NCAA season in nearly 40 years. However, head coach John Calipari’s squad will tangle with arguably its biggest test of the season in Saturday’s national semifinal against the No. 1 Wisconsin Badgers (35-3; 16-2).
The Wildcats have brushed off upset bids several times this season. Most recently they downed Notre Dame’s attempt in the Elite Eight thanks to guard Andrew Harrison’s clutch pair of free throws in the final six seconds of play for a 68-66 victory.
It was the closest margin of victory for Kentucky in nearly two months. Back on Feb. 10, LSU missed a three-pointer at the buzzer that would have halted the Wildcats winning streak and perfect season at 23 games. In January, Kentucky needed an extra period against Ole Miss, and two overtimes on the road against Texas A&M, each time pulling out a win and some much-needed experience in big games for such an underclassmen-laden roster.
But now, in the 17th Final Four in school history, the Wildcats will not only stare down history but a well-oiled and tested Wisconsin squad that’s arguably peaking at the perfect time.
The Badgers, making their fourth Final Four appearance and second straight against Kentucky, blew past Arizona in the Elite Eight 85-78 off 54 combined points from the star frontcourt of Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker. Wisconsin received some flak for average performances in the first three rounds of the tournament, but was firing on all cylinders against Arizona, with Dekker converting five of his six three-point attempts, leading an overall onslaught of 12-for-18 from beyond the arc and 55.6 percent shooting from the field.
There’s also a bit of a revenge factor for these Badgers, having lost to Kentucky in last year’s Final Four, 74-73, and head coach Bo Ryan told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel his team understands the immense task ahead.
"They are very, very excited, but they're not awestruck," Ryan said. "But believe me, they don't take anything for granted. They're very happy to have been able to get this far.
"We know what we're up against. Our guys are pretty smart guys. They know what it's going to take, a pretty perfect game or close to it, to get these guys. We'll see what we have in us."
Ahead of the matchup at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, the Badgers boast Dekker, Kaminsky and sophomore Nigel Hayes. The comprise three big men seemingly most capable of matching the Wildcats' duo of Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein.
Kaminsky, named a first-team All-American on Monday, has improved his scoring efforts in the postseason with 22.8 points per game in Wisconsin’s four victories. Same goes for Dekker, knocking down 13 of his 27 attempts from deep en route to 21.8 points in the tournament. Hayes, who second on the team with 6.3 rebounds a contest, has carried over his consistent production from the regular season with 12.3 points and 5.5 boards and has totaled 10 assists throughout the tournament.
How well Kaminsky plays may determine who advances to the national championship. The seven-footer has scored 20 or more points on 15 occasions this season. In last year's Final Four, Kaminsky, an inside and outside threat, took just seven shots and scored eight points. More shots from Kaminsky on Saturday could spell doom for Kentucky.
But the challenge is equally daunting for the Badgers. Cauley-Stein, a versatile and lithe seven-foot defender who was also named to the All-American squad, has squatted away nine shots and altered countless others during the tournament and figures to be draped over Kaminsky while battling Hayes on the boards.
Towns, a freshman projected to be one of the first picks in the upcoming NBA Draft, is coming off his best game of the season with 25 points, five rebounds, four assists and two steals against the Fighting Irish.
There’s also freshman Trey Lyles, a 6-foot-10 forward who recorded a double-double in the third round against Cincinnati and chipped in 14 points and seven rebounds in the double-up of West Virginia in the regional semifinals.
The matchups down low possibly canceling each other out opens up the opportunity for each side’s backcourt to make the biggest difference, and the Wildcats appear to have a big edge.
Harrison, and brother Andrew, command the wings a steal apiece per game, and Andrew second on the team with 3.6 assists per game. Freshman guard Tyler Ulis puts up 3.7 assists a game, and racked up six steals in the first two rounds. Meanwhile, swingman Devin Booker is one of the best perimeter players in the nation.
Ryan will hope experience rules over talent with senior guard Josh Gasser leading the Badgers backcourt. Gasser scored in double-digits for the first time in 15 games against Arizona, and has largely helped out while fellow senior Traevon Jackson missed 19 games after fracturing his right foot in January. Jackson came back in the regional semifinals against North Carolina, but has played only 16 combined minutes the last two games.
Betting Odds: Kentucky -5
Over/Under: 131 points
Early Prediction: Kentucky over Wisconsin, 71-68