Is is Saturday yet? Yes?! Today is the day, finally.
Tom Petty nailed it -- the build up to the Final Four has been epic and excruciating at the same time. And even though Kentucky (38-0) has been in a class above every other team all season, the season Wisconsin (35-3) has put together give fans reason to believe something special can happen in Indianapolis.
I don't know what kept Bo Ryan and the Wisconsin coaching staff up all night worrying about this game. Maybe UK's ridiculous size, attacking style or depth ... the things we've been talking about all week. But there are also a few under-publicized areas of concern to keep an eye on during the game.
1. Tyler Ulis causing havoc
Keifer Sykes, Yogi Ferrell, Deandre Mathieu are all point guards standing 6'0 or under that have had success against Wisconsin. They fit the profile of small, quick guards that can get to where they want on the court before the Badger defense can stop them. Even Joseph Young, at 6'2, had a devastating first step that helped him grab 30 points for Oregon earlier in this very tournament.
Ulis is 5'9. Though one of the less-heralded Kentucky freshmen, he is one of the keys to Kentucky being able to play at their desired pace. He averages 24 minutes and leads the team in assist rate. Ulis provides a very different look than Andrew Harrison at point guard and will be very tough for the Wisconsin guards to keep in front of them because they have to respect his three-point shot, where he also leads the team (41.9%). The Chicago native is also pesky on the defensive end and his ability to steal the ball could force some undesired turnovers even if UW is making smart decisions otherwise.
What's scarier is that Ulis has been very quiet lately, but that doesn't make him less dangerous. He might be due for a breakout game.
2. Inbounds plays
How many times this year have we seen Wisconsin struggle to get the ball in efficiently under the opponent's basket on a seemingly simple out of bounds situation? The whole notion of complaining about this is a running inside joke on the internet among Badger fans, but one can't deny the nervous feeling you get when Wisconsin waits four seconds to inbound the ball and then has to lollipop it down to the other half of the court instead of looking for a quick score. There were even a rash of close calls inbounding against full-court pressure when the opponent pulled the extra defender off the ball to face UW's desired ballhandler.
Regardless, the reason this is worrisome is because Kentucky's length can cause new problems on these plays at multiple points. First, there are pretty good odds that a super-athletic, giant human being will be guarding the inbounder, making his sightlines difficult to non-existent. Secondly, all those deep passes down towards the other team's goal are not going to be as easy to complete. If the release valve is Kaminsky, Wilie Cauley Stein can win those jump balls. If the released valve is Koenig, the Harrisons can win those jump balls. And if they do, Kentucky is off to the races for an easy bucket. And easy buckets are a big no-no if you want to defeat the undefeated.
3. The case of the shrinking Nigel Hayes
I have been on record saying Hayes is the key to a Wisconsin win. However, a quick sampling of big games shows that Hayes has not played his best in these situations, going back to last year's national semifinal where he was limited to seven minutes and two points as a freshman.
Hayes has run into foul trouble in most of those marquee games, fouling out with two rebounds against Maryland, and picking up four against Duke (four points, two rebounds) and Arizona. And his one standout performance in a big spot -- 25 points against Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament final -- came virtue of a 12-for-12 free throw shooting performance against a team not known for the quality of its post players.
Normally Hayes can use some quick post moves to get by bigger opponents, but Kentucky's recovery ability is on another level, so there will likely be a few blocked shots in Wisconsin's future. So it will be essential for Hayes' jump shot to be on point, from the mid-range and long distance. After blazing through the Big Ten in the tournament from deep (7-of-13), Hayes has cooled off in the NCAAs, hitting 4-of-15 (26.6%) from three-point land. Hayes always seems to pick up a cheap foul on a rebound scrum under the basket (maybe it's his football mentality still peeking out), but if he can avoid foul trouble and hit his share of three-pointers one more time, Hayes can certainly erase the bad taste of last year's performance and spur the Badgers to victory.