KENTUCKY vs. WISCONSIN
The Wildcats were the preseason No. 1, while the Badgers started at No. 20. However, the teams went in opposite directions this season, and it's the preseason No. 1 that comes into the Final Four as the eight seed. With a freshman-heavy squad, head coach John Calipari struggled to get his young players on the same page, losing to teams like LSU, Arkansas (twice) and South Carolina. But Kentucky turned it around and is peaking at just the right time. The Wildcats' postseason run has perhaps been the tournament's most exciting, with a last-second win in the regional final against Michigan and instant classics against Louisville and Wichita State. They became the first team in NCAA Tournament history to defeat three Final Four participants from the prior year.
The Wildcats will have their hands full against a Bo Ryan-led Wisconsin team that is more offensively minded than any in recent history. Led by big men Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, the Badgers can score inside and outside, giving them plenty of options to keep up with the youngsters from Lexington. Wisconsin ousted top-seed Arizona in the regional final, sending Ryan to the Final Four for the first time in his career.
Kentucky and Wisconsin offer a contrast in styles, often depicted as "old school vs. new school." And the squads represent conferences that were polar opposite this season. While the Big Ten was touted as the best conference in America throughout the season, the SEC received no respect from pundits and had only three teams make the tournament. Nonetheless, the surprising SEC has only one loss in the postseason and boasts two of the Final Four.
Kentucky Wildcats, Midwest Region No. 8 seed
The Harrison twins came to Kentucky as two of the top freshman guards in the country, and here they are in the Final Four thanks to fine play from both during the NCAA Tournament. Aaron Harrison's three-pointer with less than three seconds left against Michigan in the Elite Eight showed once again that Calipari's freshman-heavy roster can make deep runs in the tournament. Fellow freshman guard James Young gets a bit overshadowed by the twins, but he's an elite talent, averaging 14.1 points per game this season, tying Aaron Harrison for the backcourt team lead.
Willie Cauley-Stein is the aged veteran for this team, a sophomore who averaged 6.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.9 blocks this season. However, he is not expected to play after injuring his ankle in the first half of the Wildcats' Sweet 16 win over Louisville and missing the regional final. Marcus Lee, another freshman McDonald's All-American, had 10 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in 15 minutes against Michigan after averaging just 6.1 minutes per game this year. But the man who dominates the frontcourt is Julius Randle, who leads the country in double-doubles this season and is an absolute beast in the paint. He's gotten even better in the tournament, averaging 15.8 points and 12.0 rebounds per game.
Randle. The freshman big man is going to get his down low, but it will be his ability to keep up with Kaminsky or Dekker on the defensive end that could decide this one. Additionally, if Randle can bang down low and get either Kaminsky and/or Dekker in foul trouble, the Wildcats will have a great shot at playing Monday night.
Who They Beat to Get Here:
Kansas State, 56-49
Wichita State, 78-76
They'll Win If:
Randle can dominate the paint and get the Badgers' big men in foul trouble. Randle is going to get his points and rebounds, and the Harrison twins need to limit turnovers, but if Randle can keep Kaminsky and Dekker on the bench, the Wildcats should have no problem outscoring Bo Ryan's squad.
-- Andrew Laird
Wisconsin Badgers, West Region No. 2 seed
Point guard Traevon Jackson and senior sharshooter Ben Brust have taken different paths to arrive in North Texas, but both are unselfish players adept at sharing the ball with teammates. Jackson is an underrated shooter who does a number of things well. Brust is a 1,000-point scorer who has made 40 percent of his shots from long range this season and has more than 200 three-point field goals in his career. Josh Gasser is the third guard in Ryan's trio of perimeter shooters who extend the ground opposing defenses have to cover. All three are better than 38 percent from behind the line and provide adequate ball pressure on defense, as well.
Anchored by Dekker, an athletic wing, and Kaminsky, an exceptionally skilled big man, Wisconsin's frontcourt dominated the West region. Kaminsky has far exceeded his regular-season production. He averaged 22.0 points per game in his last three games after averaging 14.1 in the regular season. Dekker, on the other hand, has taken fewer shots during the tournament, deferring to Kaminsky, who is attacking teams from the interior and the three-point arc. Dekker was the team's leading scorer and rebounder for much of the season until his teammates began to take some of the offensive load off his shoulders. Thanks to that talent and unselfishness, teams have yet to find an answer for the Badgers.
Dekker. Perhaps Ryan's most heralded recruit, the sophomore forward has been overshadowed by Kaminsky's dominating postseason. Baylor was overwhelmed by Kaminsky in the regional semifinal, and Arizona allowed him 28 points and 11 rebounds in the Elite Eight matchup. The length and athleticism of Kentucky, however, will bring a different challenge for Kaminsky. If the Wildcats can limit his ability to score in the paint and/or from the perimeter, Dekker must step up for Wisconsin to advance. After shooting only 38 percent from the floor in his last three games, Dekker must make some noise after a relatively quiet NCAA Tournament thus far.
Who They Beat to Get Here:
They'll Win If:
Kaminsky can dominate Kentucky's formidable line. The Wildcats likely will be without the injured 7-footer Cauley-Stein. Calipari's group, however, is the tallest team in college basketball. If it finds a way to contain Kaminsky and neutralize Dekker's ability to attack the basket, the Badgers will be forced to win the game from the perimeter, something they have not had to do this postseason.
-- Daniel Kennedy
The Wildcats are peaking at just the right time, beating an undefeated team, last year's national champion and last year's runner-up to get here. The Badgers have beaten some good teams in the tournament, including West Region No. 1 seed Arizona, but Wisconsin's size and skill won't be overpowering to Kentucky, who have beaten teams arguably better than this. Both teams can get hot from behind the three-point arc, but the big men will decide this one. Even without Cauley-Stein, their defensive specialist, the Wildcats have enough punch to take out the Badgers and reach their second national championship game in three years.
Without Cauley-Stein, Kentucky has won consecutive close games and is clicking on all cylinders. It is hard to fathom that the team just 30 days ago written off by nearly everyone is just two wins away from a national championship. Kaminsky has carried Wisconsin, and the 7-footer is the best multidimensional center left in the tournament. Opposing teams have not had an answer for his size or shooting ability, as he draws traditional big men away from the basket where they are uncomfortable defending the perimeter. Cauley-Stein had the rare requisite lateral quickness to defend Kaminsky anywhere on the court, but without him, do the Wildcats have another player who can limit Wisconsin's most massive weapon? Regardless of whether Kaminsky continues his one-man demolition, Kentucky has the athletes and the talent to win this game. Wisconsin has not seen a team this deep that plays above the rim as often as the Wildcats.