The Kentucky Wildcats (38-0; 18-0) may not be quite as invincible as some may have thought. They survived a scare Saturday night and now enter the Final Four against the impressive Wisconsin Badgers (35-3; 16-2). But the budding Badgers will have to be on top of their game when they attempt to take down John Calipari’s undefeated squad, as certain matchups appear to be favoring Kentucky.
Both No. 1 seeds will be making a second straight trip to the Final Four. Wisconsin had few rough patches throughout the tournament, winning by at least seven points in every game leading up to Indianapolis. Bo Ryan's squad exceeded expectations, as many experts projected the Badgers to either fall in the Elite Eight or just barely edge their way out of the West region.
Meanwhile, Kentucky showed vulnerability in their 68-66 Elite Eight victory over Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish took UK to the final possession of the game and had the lead for much of the second half. It was a shocking reminder that Kentucky, for all of its talent and cohesion, is susceptible to an upset. The problems Kentucky faced against Notre Dame should not instill a great amount of confidence that they can breeze past Wisconsin.
The Badgers had little trouble scoring in their win over No. 2-seeded Arizona in the Elite Eight at Staples Center in Los Angeles. Arizona entered the contest as one of the top teams in the nation, but the Badgers seemed to do a lot of the little things right, including hitting perimeter shots when Arizona looked desperate for a defensive stop. Wisconsin's guards combined to take just six shots, strengthening the perception that Ryan relies perhaps too heavily on his frontcourt.
Superstar center Frank Kaminsky scored 29 points and grabbed six rebounds to lead Wisconsin in the game, and has played a solid tournament. The senior functions as the leader and centerpiece for the Badgers. He’ll have to go up against a Kentucky frontcourt rotation that features seven-footer Willie Cauley-Stein and 6'10 Karl-Anthony Towns, along with Trey Lyles (6'10) and Dakari Johnson (7'0). That’s a lot of height, talent and athleticism that Kaminsky, who averages 18.7 points and eight rebounds, will need to contain.
Notre Dame found success against Kentucky by slowing the pace and running a smooth offense outside of the paint. The Badgers are a solid shooting team, much like Notre Dame, shooting an average 48 percent from the field during the season. If Wisconsin wants to copy the Irish’s formula they might rely more heavily on Sam Dekker for outside shooting.
Dekker has found his shooting stroke, setting career highs for points scored in two consecutive games. The junior forward dropped 27 on Arizona in the Elite Eight, converting five-of-six from behind the arc and shooting 72.7 percent from the field. His two three-pointers with less than two minutes remaining were the dagger that eliminated Arizona. If Dekker can get going against the dominant Kentucky defense, it would significantly boost Wisconsin’s chances by spreading the floor and creating better opportunities in the post.
Dekker has looked like a major threat alongside Kaminsky, but the Badgers are by no means a two-man team. Senior guard Josh Gasser can help spread the floor with his shooting, as well. He has shot 38.4 percent on three-pointers this season and has gone two-for-three from behind the arc in Wisconsin’s last two games. Forward Nigel Hayes could also help ease some of the pressure on Kaminsky, though the sophomore has been streaky from beyond the three-point line in recent games.
The Badgers promise to be a major threat to end Kentucky's dream season. The roster has looked disciplined, and has proven it can score when it counts.
In the end, depth may be the reason Kentucky advances to the national championship. Ryan’s rotation simply doesn't have enough big men to hold off Kentucky's length and guard play. Indeed, no roster can truly match the embarrassment of riches Kentucky features.
In order for Wisconsin to outlast Kentucky, they will likely need Kaminsky to slow Towns and Cauley-Stein while preventing Kentucky guards from easily penetrating the paint. He will also need to stay to out of foul trouble and to find his shot in the early going to keep the Badgers in contention. All of those variables may be too much even for someone of Kaminsky's abilities.
But should Dekker provide the type of scoring help that he did against Arizona, and get some help from a player like Hayes or Gasser, Kentucky should receive more than just a scare than they received against Notre Dame.