All season long the media has stressed the goofy nature of this Wisconsin team and its camaraderie. As it turns out, staying loose and carefree might save the Badgers.
Now that Kentucky, the AP's preseason No. 1 team, has turned around its season, all the attention has gravitated toward Saturday's second semifinal. Wisconsin (30-7) seems to be back in the familiar role of dangerous underdog, but the Badger bandwagon picked up many new passengers in the past week.
That's right, it's America's Team vs. the Evil Empire, with Wisconsin in the role of the good guys.
Can Frank Kaminsky handle his new-found fame and deliver another legendary performance? Will the Badgers be intimidated by one of the most imposing No. 8 seeds in history? Like Alfred E. Newman, they don't seem like the worrying type. Instead, as Josh Gasser said at the team's welcome home rally, Wisconsin is thinking, "Why not us?"
Kentucky (28-10) is a truly intriguing team for Wisconsin to face in its return to the Final Four, which is why I had plenty of questions for Glenn Logan from A Sea of Blue, SB Nation's fine Kentucky Wildcats site.
B5Q: Obviously each team that reaches the Final Four comes in on a roll. However, Kentucky is garnering more buzz than anyone now that things are clicking. In your mind, when did the Wildcats really turn the corner to enable this current run? What has been the biggest factor in UK's resurgence?
More on Kentucky vs. Wisconsin
Q & A with Wisconsin's Finest Basketball Site
•A Sea Of BlueRead Phil's answers to questions from A Sea of Blue, as well as Glenn's response on the topic of turnovers.
More on Kentucky vs. Wisconsin
A Sea of Blue (Glenn): That's actually a pretty easy question. At the end of the regular season from the Florida game on, Kentucky was averaging around 1.01 points per possession. In that stretch, Kentucky lost four of seven games, including two at home in Rupp Arena.
Since the SEC Tournament began, Kentucky has been averaging almost 1.15 PPP, a 13.4% increase in offensive efficiency. That is the one thing that has substantially changed since the regular season. Earlier this season, Kentucky was a powerful offensive team, but in the middle of the year they began to put up really mediocre offensive numbers. That changed big time in the postseason, and I attribute it to a "tweak" that Calipari put into the Dribble Drive Motion offense.
The DDM is a "shoot first" offense — that is, on penetration, the initiator (usually the point guard, in this case Andrew Harrison) tries to take his man off the dribble. The first option then is to try to shoot a layup. If covered, you kick to an open shooter. If that's covered, you recycle the play. I believe Calipari told Andrew to think "pass first" early in the possession. As a result, they offense has run smoother, there have been few, if any, wild flings at the basket, and the Wildcats are getting better shots. What has also helped is Aaron Harrison shooting the ball better from outside, and gotten Andrew fewer shots (he was shooting way too much) and more assists.
Also, Kentucky has allowed Randle to initiate the offense a lot more often with a pass-first mentality. That has really helped get the defense moving, as you absolutely must get the ball out of Randle's hand before he gets to the block, or bad things happen to the opposition. As a result, Aaron in particular has benefited from a lot more wide-open shots, or dribble drives after closeouts.
B5Q: Shooting 63% from long distance is probably not sustainable. And even though Aaron Harrison is completely in the zone right now, as a team Kentucky has not had good 3-point shooting performances back-to-back in this tournament yet. How big of a concern is this on-again, off-again trend?
SOB: It's not much of a concern. Kentucky has never relied on the three, but it's really helpful to a team's offensive efficiency when you're shooting it well. It forces teams to guard perimeter players more closely, giving them a better chance to get fouled or get layups when they drive the ball inside, and opens up passing lanes for the big guys.
When Kentucky was shooting poorly from the arc, it was mostly because they were settling for shots rather than getting them from inside the offense. They also lacked the confidence to take them, which is a really, really bad thing — as I used to say about former Wildcat Archie Goodwin (a notoriously poor 3-point shooter in college who would almost always pass up an open look for a rim attack), when all you've got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Now that Kentucky has the confidence to take, and make, open threes, it has expanded their offensive toolbox and made the offense look less like what I call the Dribble Drive Fling, and Hope.
B5Q: I pretty much have to ask every opposing blogger this now, so ... who guards Frank Kaminsky if Willie Cauley-Stein cannot play, and how do you think the team will approach defending The Tank overall?
SOB: I suspect that's a closely-held secret right now. Kaminsky would be much less of a problem if Willie Cauley-Stein were available, but he's not. Despite his inside-outside threat, Kaminsky doesn't shoot a lot of shots from the perimeter. He's only made 37 from out there all year, so we'll probably just choose to live with outside shots from him. Marcus Lee can guard him on the perimeter, but I think Kaminsky's just a little to thick for him inside. You may see Alex Poythress take a go at Kaminsky, he's athletic enough to make up for the height differential, and weighs about the same.
Inside the paint, where he's much more dangerous, Calipari will probably let Dakari Johnson guard him straight up until he starts burning us, then bring a double-team. I doubt Kentucky will zone Wisconsin much, but you might see a little of the flex zone Calipari plays that starts as a 1-3-1 and morphs in to a 2-3.
B5Q: Much of the concern on the Wisconsin side heading into this contest centers on the excellent size of Kentucky's guards. Even though Kentucky is the best offensive rebounding team in the country, I notice that neither the Harrison twins nor James Young are particularly tenacious rebounders. Can you describe their impact on the glass and also where you see the size advantage being most important?
SOB: Kentucky has been a poor transition team, so Calipari generally doesn't send the Harrisons to the glass. He will typically send three — Julius Randle, James Young and Dakari Johnson, all of whom are excellent rebounders. The Harrisons are capable of getting good numbers on the offensive glass, but because Wisconsin likes to get in transition and Kentucky has struggled to defend transition, the 'Cats will be more concerned with that than worrying about Wisconsin keeping our big guys off the rim. Keeping Randle or Alex Poythress off the glass is job enough for two people, so I think the Harrison's main concern will be getting back on defense. They aren't exactly lightning-quick.
Where the Harrisons kill you with their size is on offense. Most teams simply don't have guards big enough to stop them when they attack the rim. That was a particular problem for Louisville, and to a lesser extent Michigan, because their guards give away so much size. Zoning Kentucky helps alleviate this problem, but Kentucky's improve perimeter shooting, and more importantly, their confidence out there, makes that a risky plan.
Rebounding-wise, Johnson and Randle gobble them up like starving men presented a banquet. That doesn't leave a lot of leftovers for the rest of the team.
B5Q: A slower pace could be an unusual ally for Kentucky against Wisconsin because John Calipari can really only go six or seven deep in his rotation with the injury to Cauley-Stein. Will UK try to run on Wisconsin and let their edge in athleticism try to carry them or maybe stay content to slash to the hole in a half-court game and win it with offensive boards?
SOB: Actually, against Wisconsin, Kentucky can easily go nine deep. Even with WCS out, you could easily see significant minutes from Jarrod Polson and Dominque Hawkins as well as Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee. Polson matches up fine against Wisconsin's smaller, and more importantly, less quick guards. Hawkins is a defensive specialist, but he helped shut down Nik Stauskas the other night against Michigan in the second half.
You can expect Kentucky to try to get Wisconsin in transition as much as possible. Another place where the size of Kentucky's back court can be devastating is in transition, and from the tape I have watched on Wisconsin, they wind up in defensive transition a lot. And although they've been pretty good at the rim in defensive transition, I doubt they've faced a team as big and strong as the Wildcats.
B5Q: Kentucky will likely start five freshmen on Saturday night, a first in the 22 years since Michigan's Fab Five did the same in the Final Four. Julius Randle may not be Chris Webber, but he is a beast nonetheless. Who is the most important player for the Wildcats this weekend -- Randle or one of the guards?
SOB: It could be either, or both, or James Young. One thing about this team is that no player has been indispensable. We beat Louisville without Randle for most of the game, we managed Michigan and Louisville without Wilie Cauley-Stein. The Harrisons have both been in significant foul trouble throughout the year and we've managed to win without them.
Perhaps the most dangerous thing about this team is that any of the players are capable of going off for 25 points, save maybe Johnson. You can't take away either Harrison and think that's going to beat Kentucky. The same for Young or Johnson or Randle. That's one of this team's strengths is the fact that everybody can play, everybody can score, and no one person is impossible to replace. There are seven McDonald's All Americans on this team, and they all got that honor for a reason.
B5Q: Being a fan of a traditional powerhouse program and also a non-Big Ten school, I'm curious about your thoughts on Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan. Do you have any? Ryan and Calipari have two very different approaches to their programs, but have both been extremely successful.
SOB: I love Bo Ryan. I think he's one of the 10 best coaches in America, and I'm tickled to death that he made it to the Final Four. I'm always amazed at how he coaches up his players, and he's really shown his versatility this season by going against what most perceive as his normal pattern and putting an offensive powerhouse out there rather than a grind-it-out defensive team as has been his wont in recent years.
Bo Ryan is far and away my favorite coach in the Big Ten. I love his intensity and his adaptability, and I suspect he'll one day be a Hall of Famer. It would not shock me at all to see Wisconsin win the whole tournament this season. Obviously, I don't want that to happen, but Ryan is a splendid coach and Wisconsin is a very dangerous team. I have nothing but good things to say about Bo Ryan.
Our thanks to Glenn for getting grilled B5Q-style; go find him on Twitter @ASeaOfBlue. One topic I didn't touch was turnovers. For all the talk about Kentucky's length and athleticism, I found it odd that the Wildcats force turnovers as infrequently as the Badgers do. Kentucky is averaging just 11 turnovers per game in the tournament, though they've been prone to turnovers earlier in the season. Something to keep an eye on ...
Saturday night's game time is set for approximately 7:49 p.m. CDT on TBS. Also, don't forget the special Wisconsin announcing team's broadcast airing simultaneously on TruTV.
Projected Starting Lineups
|Frank Kaminsky, Jr.||C||Dakari Johnson, Fr.|
|Sam Dekker, So.||F||Julius Randle, Fr.|
|Josh Gasser, Jr.||G / F||James Young, Fr.|
|Ben Brust, Sr.||G||Aaron Harrison, Fr.|
|Traevon Jackson, Jr.||G||Andrew Harrison, Fr.|
KenPom win probability: 54 percent (70-69 W) 62 possessions
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