Who: No. 2 Wisconsin vs. No. 8 Kentucky
When: Saturday, 7:49 p.m. CT
Where: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas
National TV: TBS (Jim Nantz, Greg Anthony, Steve Kerr, Tracy Wolfson)
Turner Teamcast: truTV (Wayne Larrivee, Mike Kelley)
Three keys to victory
So, the time has finally arrived. Let's play some ball.
I know I'm not alone in saying this, but getting through the past few days of work was unprecedentedly difficult. Seriously, I don't know how I stayed productive given how much I've been itching with anticipation for tonight's contest.
Hell, I'm anxious just writing this pregame post right now, but let's get to it.
The Wisconsin Badgers are in the Final Four. Wow, that's got a nice ring to it, huh?
Badger Nation has been waiting to experience this night for many years, as have Wisconsin's players, coaches and especially the head coach himself, Bo Ryan.
While I want all Badger fans out there to cherish this moment and enjoy what a ride this season has been, we can do that in the near future. For now, keep reciting this phrase: "four down, two to go."
Sure, what Wisconsin has already accomplished is sensational and I don't want to diminish that, but as the Badgers' players and staff have reiterated this week, why not win the Ship? After all, they're close... real close.
To have a chance at winning its first national championship since 1941 though, Wisconsin will need to knock off a Kentucky Wildcats team in tonight's semifinal that is playing scary good basketball right now. They epitomize what it means to be peaking when it matters most. All of the talent that John Calipari brought together for this season has finally started to live up to the exorbitant expectations heaped upon them at the beginning of the year. I'd be interested to see how this Kentucky team would be talked about amongst prognosticators had it been this impressive all season, but that is neither here nor there.
What we have on our hands tonight is a contest pitting two of the four best teams in America against each other, yet they really couldn't be more polar opposite. Kentucky uses the one-and-done model with NBA talent, while Wisconsin takes the four-year guys and molds them over the course of a career. Kentucky embraces the flashy system that serves as a quick filter for players to earn a paycheck, while Wisconsin asks players to earn their time and care about more than just basketball.
Even the coaches are about as different as it gets... John Calipari wants to let his athletes run free, while Bo Ryan wants players to execute as efficiently as a surgeon.
Two great basketball teams, two complete opposites.
So then, what is it that the Badgers have to do tonight to ensure it is their style that earns a spot in the season's final game? We've got a few ideas in the form of our three keys.
1. Keep Kentucky off the offensive glass
This has been tabbed a key to tonight's game by just about every pundit in America, and I know it's not original, but I have to note it as well.
The Badgers' ability to keep the Wildcats off the backboard will be the single most determinant factor in either a Wisconsin win or loss. As good as Bo's bunch has been on the defensive glass of late, this Kentucky team brings a different type of tenacity on the boards. The Wildcats absolutely destroyed Michigan on the offensive glass.
Wisconsin was able to more than hold its own against the athletic front lines of Baylor and Arizona the past two games, but Kentucky is simply a different animal. Julius Randle is a future NBA All-Star. James Young is a first-round pick. Alex Poythress is a freak who will find a roster at the next level. The Harrison twins are 6'5" guards suddenly thriving in the Wildcats' system. They all know how to create second chance opportunities for each other with their offensive rebounding prowess, and if you give NBA talent too many chances to beat you, it will cost you in the end.
The Wildcats average 14.5 offensive rebounds per game, which is tied for the 5th-best mark in America. I think that number needs to stay at 10 or below for Wisconsin to win, and if the Badgers can continue to use that pack-line defense effectively against another big, athletic front line... Well, then they just might stay competitive on the glass once again.
2. Make it a half-court game
Patience is a virtue my friends, and Wisconsin should utilize that virtue to its advantage as much as possible tonight.
The Wildcats want to make this a hectic, up-and-down game because that favors their athleticism, but if the Badgers can use up large chunks of the shot clock and still get quality looks at the basket, then suddenly the pendulum swings back and favors UW's efficiency.
Obviously this year's team has shown more ability to push the ball in transition than any other in the Bo Ryan era, but this is a game where those transition looks should be taken opportunistically. Don't get into a track meet but also don't slow things to a grinding halt. A mix of tempos will frustrate Kentucky's youth and could expose a defense that has been inconsistent all year.
3. Sam Dekker needs to play to the level of his capabilities
Sam, Sam, Sam... if there was ever a night for you to step up and play like the kid that was talked about earlier this season as a potential first round NBA draft pick, tonight would be that night.
I love Dekker's raw ability and the leadership he's exhibited at points this year, but I've got to admit, he's also disappointed me in 2014. Maybe my expectations were too high for him coming into the year, but I just haven't seen the growth I was hoping to see. I thought Sammy would be the clear favorite to carry Wisconsin's torch this season, but that title belongs to Frank Kaminsky without a shadow of a doubt.
I foresee John Calipari attacking Kaminsky early and often to get him out of a rhythm or even get him in foul trouble, and if either scenario occurs, that leaves Dekker as the best candidate to pick up the scoring slack for Wisconsin. In fact, I'll say the sophomore from Sheboygan needs to go for 18-plus for the Badgers to advance to the final.
It's proving ground for you tonight, Mr. Dekker. Let's see you go toe to toe with athletes similar to the ones you'll face at the next level.
Prediction: I predicted an instant classic in last week's Elite 8 matchup with Arizona and that's what we got. Expect another one tonight. No matter the outcome, what a season this has been for our Badgers. Having said that though, I don't think the run ends tonight. I like the team with the savvy, veteran moxie to take down the ultra-talented youngsters. Wisconsin 70, Kentucky 66.
Let's play for a national title.