No. 1 Wisconsin Badgers (35-3, 16-2) senior center Frank Kaminsky was named the Associated Press Player of the Year Friday, and No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats (38-0, 18-0) head coach John Calipari picked up Coach of the Year honors as well.
But both player and coach have their eyes firmly fixed on the Naismith Trophy, and their Saturday night national semifinal matchup at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
For Calipari, accompanying his star-laden batch of freshmen, is his fourth straight venture to the Final Four, but he’s hoping to improve on last year’s championship loss to Connecticut.
Kentucky is two games away from completing the first perfect season in nearly 40 years, and Calipari is also seeking his second national title, which would make him the 14th coach in history with two or more.
The Wildcats program enters its 17th Final Four overall, and can eliminate the Badgers for the second straight year in the national semifinal. Last year Wisconsin fell 74-73, and Kaminsky struggled to score eight points and snag five rebounds in the loss.
The seven-footer roared back to guide Wisconsin to its second straight Final Four, and fourth overall in school history with 18.7 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game while shooting 54.9 percent from the field. Kaminsky’s also shown excellent range on his shot, connecting on 41.5 percent of his three-pointers.
He’s joined by sharpshooting 6-foot-9 junior forward Sam Dekker, and workhorse sophomore forward Nigel Hayes. The trio powered Wisconsin in solid victories over No. 8 Oregon, No. 4 North Carolina and No. 2 Arizona in the West Region, with Dekker pouring in 27 points off a 5-for-5 night from three-point range.
Hayes would also exceed his regular season averages in the first three rounds of the tournament, including 15 points and eight boards against No. 16 Coastal Carolina and 14 points and five rebounds versus the Ducks.
In the backcourt, senior Josh Gasser and sophomore Bronson Koenig have held steady after senior Traevon Jackson went down with a broken foot back in January. Gasser scored 10 points against Arizona, and has shot 4-for-6 from deep in the last two Badgers victories. Koenig is just behind Kaminsky with a 41.1 percent rate from three, but Jackson could play a crucial role against an ultra-quick pack of Wildcats.
Calipari deserves as much credit for convincing his stars to play together as he does for assembling them in the first place. Kentucky starts sophomores and twin brothers Aaron and Andrew Harrison, with shooter Devin Booker on the wing, and big men Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein holding down the middle.
Like Kaminsky, the junior forward Cauley-Stein garnered first-team All-American honors with 9.1 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 1.7 blocks per game for a Wildcats defense that lets up a paltry 53.9 points per game with opponents shooting 35.2 percent from the field.
Towns and Booker were part of another top freshmen recruiting class of Calipari’s, and have lived up to the hype all season long. The 6-foot-10 Towns leads Kentucky with 6.6 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game, and on average shoot 56.3 percent from the field for 10.1 points.
Meanwhile, Booker and fellow freshman guard Tyler Ulis have become the Wildcats most lethal and reliable threats from three-point range, knocking down 41.9 and 41.1 percent of their attempts, respectively.
Tipoff: 8:45 p.m. ET
TV Channel: TBS
Live Online: A live online stream is available at March Madness Live here
Betting Odds: Kentucky -5
Over/Under: 132 points
Prediction: Kentucky over Wisconsin, 71-68